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The fatal ego error: Using outcome alone to inflate our proficiency

Uncover the power of accurate skill evaluation to safeguard true competency and minimize risks

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We’ve often heard that an officer’s confidence is crucial for survival — and this is indeed true. Doubt can lead to hesitation and uncertainty, which may have fatal consequences. But while confidence and ego are frequently used interchangeably, they are distinctly different.

Confidence stems from an honest evaluation of our abilities, whereas ego is a belief in superior skills without such an assessment. Confidence can easily morph into ego when our abilities remain untested. This issue is compounded by our tendency to measure success solely by the outcomes of situations, neglecting the possibility that luck may have played a role or that the challenge was not as formidable as presumed, leading to a predestined result.

To prevent our ego from fostering complacency, it’s vital to objectively assess our opponent’s skills in relation to our own and understand how this comparison influences the outcome.

Inferior opponent

This doesn’t mean we view ourselves as superior or diminish the worth of others. It simply points to a comparison of skills, physical capabilities and dedication to prevailing.

In reality, most suspects who resist officers are at a disadvantage. They may lack the officer’s proficiency in combat skills or their commitment to the confrontation. Typically, when these suspects resist, their efforts are aimed at withdrawing or fleeing rather than engaging. Faced with significant force, they often concede quickly. Against an officer with superior skills, a suspect’s chances of success largely hinge on unpredictable elements or “luck” — such as the officer making a critical mistake or the influence of unforeseen factors that unexpectedly tilt the odds in the suspect’s favor.

When we face a less skilled opponent, our success seems almost assured, barring extraordinary circumstances. Unfortunately, this reality often leads to inflated confidence because many of our encounters fall into this category. Our natural inclination is to judge our abilities and performance solely on the outcomes we achieve, which can lead to an overestimation of our own skills.

It’s a difficult but necessary exercise to acknowledge that a successful outcome may have less to do with our prowess and more with the deficiencies of our opponents. Yet, as we accumulate these perceived victories, our ego can lead us to an exaggerated perception of our capabilities.

Worthy opponent

Eventually, officers encounter a smaller proportion of confrontations with opponents deemed worthy, defined as individuals matching the officer in skill and determination. Such opponents are not only physically fit and experienced in combat but also understand that inflicting significant harm on the officer may be necessary to evade arrest. While most officers will encounter a few of these formidable adversaries during their careers, not all will. In these balanced match ups, victory often hinges on who commits the fewest mistakes in the least amount of time.

Officers may believe that to prevail, they must act faster or more aggressively than their opponent, attempting to win through sheer force. However, this approach can lead us to act hastily, moving faster than we can effectively process and respond. When we push ourselves beyond our mental limits, mistakes become inevitable. In situations where both participants are equally skilled, the one who commits more errors is usually the one who loses. Upon defeating a worthy opponent, there’s a tendency to downplay the adversary’s capabilities, rationalizing our success by underestimating their level.

Contrarily, when victorious over a less skilled opponent, we frequently exaggerate the opponent’s abilities to legitimize our victory. However, when we overcome a worthy opponent, our ego may diminish their skills to preserve our sense of superiority. Rather than critically analyzing the encounter to recognize errors made by both sides and devising strategies for improvement, we persuade ourselves that our victory stemmed from our unmatched skills. This shift marks our ego’s progression from being a source of confidence to becoming a perilous overestimation of our capabilities.

Superior opponent

Fortunately, most officers are unlikely to face a truly superior opponent, especially when isolated. A superior opponent is characterized by skills, abilities, and a level of commitment to the conflict that surpass our own. Nonetheless, even in instances where an opponent possesses significantly greater capabilities, their disadvantage in numbers often leads to our victory. This scenario perpetuates the inflation of our perception of our own skills, as successes achieved through numerical superiority rather than individual prowess may further skew our self-assessment.

The frequent victories over lesser opponents can inflate an officer’s ego, leading to an overestimation of their abilities. This inflated self-perception often prevents officers from recognizing when they are facing a superior opponent — one who is thoroughly prepared for the encounter. In these situations, just as when facing an inferior opponent, the outcome seems almost predetermined, but with a crucial difference: the officer is now reliant on luck for a positive outcome. Given the slim odds of winning a lottery, it’s a reasonable assumption that relying on chance or the universe’s favor is not a viable strategy. This scenario underscores the danger of an inflated ego and the critical need for a realistic assessment of one’s skills and the challenges posed by opponents.

The irony of letting our ego shape our perceptions lies in its capacity for self-deception. By convincing ourselves that our victories over lesser opponents stem from our own skill rather than their deficiencies, we diminish our motivation to train and enhance our abilities. Consequently, our actual skill level may decline, paradoxically increasing the chances of facing an opponent who is either worthy or superior. This creates a self-defeating cycle where the ego, initially a source of false confidence, ultimately undermines our competence and increases our vulnerability in confrontations.

To mitigate the risk posed by an inflated ego, officers need to engage in continuous training that challenges their perceptions of skill. High-fidelity training scenarios, such as force-on-force exercises with interactive role-players, offer a realistic measure of an officer’s capabilities. An effective method to move beyond simply evaluating outcomes is to videotape training sessions. This allows officers to review their performance with an instructor, critically analyzing decisions and actions taken during the scenario — potentially pausing the review before the outcome is revealed. Having to justify and explain their decisions in real time fosters a more accurate understanding of their skill level.

For those in instructor roles, it’s crucial to design training exercises that push even the most seasoned operators to their limits. This could involve matching students of comparable skill levels in sparring exercises or adjusting scenarios to more accurately simulate real confrontations, rather than ensuring student success in every scenario. By adopting these approaches, officers can develop a more genuine assessment of their abilities, encouraging growth and readiness for any level of opponent they might encounter.

Countering the ego’s influence also involves conducting post-incident reviews using body-worn camera footage, involving both the participants and trainers. The aim of these reviews isn’t to ridicule but to provide bluntly honest feedback. One significant way to impact an individual’s ego is through peer evaluation, leveraging the desire for esteem among colleagues to temper ego-driven perceptions.

This peer review process is essential for mitigating ego-driven biases. As a profession, there’s a need to foster an environment where making mistakes during training is not only accepted but encouraged, as it presents valuable learning opportunities. Specifically, in firearms training, there’s a crucial shift needed away from static, flat range shooting toward more dynamic decision-making exercises. Static ranges do little to simulate real-life encounters and can undeservedly boost an officer’s confidence in their shooting abilities. By incorporating dynamic scenarios that require quick thinking and decision-making under stress, officers can gain a more accurate assessment of their skills and areas needing improvement, thus providing a more realistic foundation for confidence that doesn’t rely on ego.

The concept of “natural” performers in fields like shooting or combat is more exceptional than common. While some individuals may indeed possess an innate talent for these skills, they represent rare exceptions rather than the rule. Most people must engage in consistent and frequent training to maintain or enhance their abilities. Relying solely on positive outcomes to assess our skills can lead to a misleading belief in natural proficiency. In truth, such innate talents are statistically uncommon, and it’s unlikely that most of us belong to this exceptional category.

It’s crucial to evaluate our skills based not on past successes but on a truthful assessment of our current capabilities, independent of any outcomes. The tendency in law enforcement to find external reasons for shortcomings, rather than facing them head-on, can hinder personal and professional growth. Acknowledging and learning from our actual performance, rather than dismissing it in favor of a more flattering but less accurate self-view, offers a genuine opportunity for improvement. This introspection and commitment to self-improvement reflect a maturity and dedication to excellence in the profession. Recognizing our limitations and the need for continuous development is a critical step in achieving and maintaining high levels of performance. I’m looking at myself in the mirror as I type this.

Continue the discussion

Here are some questions to ask after reading this article:

1. How can we design training programs that effectively differentiate between building genuine confidence and inadvertently fostering ego among officers?

2. What methods can be implemented to ensure that officers are assessing their skills and performance honestly and not just based on the outcomes of encounters?

3. In what ways can we incorporate dynamic decision-making exercises into our training to reflect real-life scenarios better and prevent overconfidence based on static range performance?

4. How can we encourage a culture of continuous improvement and learning from mistakes, as opposed to a focus on innate talent or natural ability?

5. What strategies can be adopted for conducting effective post-incident reviews that provide constructive, blunt feedback without damaging morale, to help officers realistically evaluate their performance and decision-making processes?

Robert Carlson is a firearms instructor for the Memphis (Tennessee) Police Department specializing in active shooter, counterambush and tactical medicine training. He is the lead TECC instructor for the Mississippi National Guard’s Regional Counterdrug Training Academy, providing no-cost training to law enforcement across the country. He has been recognized as an expert in active shooter response by law enforcement. Carlson also owns Brave Defender Training Group and is an IADLEST nationally certified instructor.