Self-Immunity is the Seed of Scandal
When people find out I’m in the crisis management business, they tend to ask one question: Do the people and institutions that get in trouble admit they did something wrong?
The answer, for the most part, is no, sometimes based on the fact that they actually didn’t commit any malfeasance, or the accusations are exaggerated. But, when pressured, the others may — may — eventually admit to having made a mistake but no more than that. I have a theory as to why this is. It involves the power of self-immunity.
When we think of those who do something wrong, we increasingly use terms like “sociopath” and “narcissist.” These terms are so overused — often to mean anybody one doesn’t like — that they have ceased to have much use. They also imply that the reason for bad behavior is anchored in evil. Some of this is true.
Nevertheless, another pathology is at work: the inability to accurately assess risk due in part to an overestimation of one’s talents and the underestimation of the ability of others. I have seen this principle operating both in my day job in crisis management and as an author of books that deal with gangsters and spies.
Part of this syndrome lies in one’s capacity for self-immunity — because I am me, that which I do cannot be bad. Of course, if someone else did it to me, that would be bad because they are not special (as I am). What is especially frightening is that the most decent of us are unaware of our capacity for self-immunization, something we all do to some degree.
Case in point: At my annual physical last year, my doctor (and friend) asked me if I was still regularly running six miles. I got defensive and started making excuses. My knees hurt, my ankles hurt, and I ache after running. He said, “Calm down, an almost sixty-year-old body isn’t meant to run six miles.” I was stunned by the power of this observation. It took me a few seconds to figure out why. I had exempted myself from statistics. I had been operating under the principle that Other People in my cohort might be experiencing these symptoms, but they had nothing to do with me. They were, well, those…statistic people. I should not be having these issues because…It’s me. I am still struggling with the reality that I cannot do what I used to, believing there is some puzzle at work here. There isn’t. I’m old (ish).
This is a harmless example of something that has the potential to be more serious: the passive belief amongst scandal figures that they are not doing precisely what they are doing and the inability to realize that very smart — and more powerful — people may catch them.
To this end, I discussed this with a friend who is in the business of investigating securities fraud. We were talking about why very smart people do very stupid things. I explained how I believe entrepreneurs that take a company public often fail to recognize that once they do so, their company is no longer theirs. They see money flowing into this company as being theirs. It’s not. I suspect this transfers to sex crimes, which are obviously reprehensible to any sane observer: Because I want to do this, it’s all right because I’m doing it, and this should be recognized as all right.
My securities investigator friend and I discussed our own capacities for risk. He said he was absolutely risk-averse. I said I had taken a risk by being in a business that provoked litigation and investigations, but when it came to investments and legal risk, I would never think I’d be able to get away with anything. Whatever self-esteem I may have, it would never occur to me that I was smarter than the FBI or SEC. If anything, I half-joked; given how I’ve made my living, I’m convinced that I must have subconsciously done something illegal that I’m going to get busted for down the line without even realizing that I did it after taking a new allergy medication.
One of my favorite examples of poor risk assessment came when I worked for a client in a business dominated by organized crime. Mobsters threatened my client, a very large corporation. The CEO happened to be a former cabinet official. As in the cabinet of the President of the United States. He picked up the phone and contacted federal authorities. The fallout was a biblical wave of prosecutions against the racketeers.
Let’s set aside for a moment that we were talking about criminals here. What got them in trouble was not just that they were criminals but that they grossly misjudged the risk they were taking. They thought they were badass gangsters without realizing what a smarter generation of gangsters would have known immediately: There were players out there who were way more powerful than they were.
Transgressors have little respect for others’ intelligence, savvy, and experience. And forget about cultural norms or rules applying to them. Jeffrey Epstein was going to make the argument in court that seducing teenage girls was perfectly normal, a common practice of wealthy men throughout the ages. Sam Bankman Fried thought he was more intelligent than hedge fund billionaires, venture capital experts, and SEC lawyers who’ve seen every scam under the sun. Alex Murdaugh, currently on trial for murdering his wife and son in South Carolina, had been testing the limits of conventional behavior for a long time (apparently aided by narcotics) until gravity came calling. People like these don’t just think they can get away with things. They often do. Until they don’t.
One of the biggest things I’ve noticed that separates those who cross the line from those who do not is what I’ll call downside imagination. Overly ambitious people see only the upside. They think in terms of destiny. It’s all about the magazine cover featuring them wearing a me-so-clever grin, one eyebrow archly cocked. What they don’t think about is that a Senate aide is passing that magazine on the way to her Metro stop, and she’s thinking, “Screw him and his cocked eyebrow. Let’s lob a subpoena his way and see what the little twerp knows. After all, I don’t get how he made that money (and why I don’t have that much and never will).”
The lesson here is to start thinking about downside risk because you can’t tell someone who thinks only in terms of destiny to tone it down. The reaction will be, “Well, you’re just not a big thinker.” I’ve actually heard that before…from people who ended up being prosecuted. One thing that may help, if only a little, is to paint a picture of risk and how if it all blows up, one’s best option is to make as good a legal case as possible because the reputation battle will be over quickly.