From a psychological perspective, the best part of any Disney movie is the villain’s song. That’s when you finally get inside the mind of evil and find out what motivates a sea witch to put a mermaid’s voice inside a seashell, or why a giant coconut crab is super into shiny objects. And almost every villain’s song has one thing in common: It’s about how, when you get down to it, the villain is actually a really good guy.
In The Lion King‘s “Be Prepared,” Scar growls about how regicide will bring happiness to a hungry animal kingdom after ”decades of denial.” In “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” The Little Mermaid‘s Ursula explains that she just uses her magic to help unhappy people get what they want. Gaston obviously thinks he’s great in Beauty and the Beast, and no wonder! He’s got a bunch of guys singing about how good he is at spitting and decorating his house with antlers.
All these songs point to a universal truth: Pretty much everyone thinks they’re a good person. And pretty much no one is actually good—at least, not 100% of the time.
According to psychologist Dolly Chugh, the notion that we’re good at heart actually interferes with our ability to be at our moral best. Instead, we should start thinking of ourselves as “good-ish”—not someone who is inherently, consistently good, just “someone who is trying to be better.”
In her new book The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias, Chugh—a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business—explains that there are a few big downsides to believing in our own fundamental goodness. For one thing, a person who thinks of themselves as good is more likely to get defensive or shut down when confronted with evidence that they’ve fallen short of their moral aspirations. “Psychologists call this a moment of self-threat—our identity is being challenged or dismissed,” Chugh explains. “Just as moments of physical threat trigger a hyperfocus on self-preservation, moments of psychological self-threat do the same.”
This explanation can help us understand a range of behaviors. On the more extreme end, the self-threat response may factor into why people accused of sexual misconduct are so consistently terrible at apologies. High-powered men like Louis CK don’t want to engage with the reality that they’ve hurt people, so they try to minimize or justify their actions.
On a more day-to-day level, moral self-threat can help explain why it’s so tricky to discuss problems with our partners, friends, family, and colleagues. Consider, for example, Gemma Hartley’s viral essay for Harper’s Bazaar on the emotional labor that goes into managing domestic life. She writes that, because her husband is sensitive to criticism, it’s hard to talk to him about the disproportionate effort that she pours into cleaning the house, doing laundry, keeping track of the social calendar, and other household duties: “If I were to point out random emotional labor duties I carry out…he would take it as me saying, ‘Look at everything I’m doing that you’re not. You’re a bad person for ignoring me and not pulling your weight.'” Ironically, when we are overly attached to the idea that we’re good, we’re less able to hear others who are telling us that they need our help.
Another common response to moral self-threat, Chugh points out, is the impulse to try to turn discussions of racism, homophobia, and other contemporary issues into an opportunity for self-affirmation. That’s how discussions about diversity in the workplace can get derailed by one privileged white person claiming that they don’t “see see color,” or why people might post on social media after a shooting at a synagogue or mosque—participating in a kind of performative grieving—yet neglect to take further steps to offer support to the people in the affected communities. “We seek what activists call ‘cookies,’ acknowledgments of our good intentions, even when the impact is costly to the cookie giver,” Chugh writes.
And so the key to actually becoming a kinder, more generous, more ethical person begins with adopting a more realistic self-image. Drawing on the research of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, Chugh explains that “good-ish” people have a “growth mindset” and believe they can improve with time, effort, and feedback. “Good people” have a “fixed mindset.” They assume their character is already set in stone.
Chugh offers the example of how a “good-ish” person with a growth mindset would respond if someone suggests they have done something racist, sexist, or homophobic:
When you activate a growth mindset voice, you are more likely to respond, “I don’t really understand what I did wrong, but I would like to understand,” or to take the time to figure it out on your own. You are more likely to apologize by saying “I am sorry, I was wrong” than by saying “I am sorry you were offended,” which points the finger at the other person for taking offense rather than at ourselves for delivering the offense. In a growth mindset, you are more likely to accept that your apology may not erase the damage done, and to refrain from reburdening the other person by asking them to make you feel better or put their anger aside.
It’s not easy to change the way we think of ourselves, as Chugh readily acknowledges. By acknowledging that we’re moral mixed bags, we can avoid the pitfalls of the Disney villain—and put ourselves on the path to becoming cooler, more morally sorted bags instead.