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It’s only wrong when YOU do it! The psychology of hypocrisy

Dean Burnett in The Guardian


In these times of political turmoil, aggressive online discourse, “post-truth”society and lord knows what else, one thing is hard to deny: there’s a lot of hypocrisy flying around. People regularly and angrily lambast others for doing something, while doing pretty much the exact same thing themselves.

Pundits condemning young people for being “special snowflakes” for wanting to be sheltered from controversial views in “safe spaces”, then having an apparent meltdown whenever they see anything even vaguely inconsistent with their opinions. Angry online types who condemn the BBC for “bias” while enthusiastically linking to sites that make no effort at all at neutrality. People who preach tolerance and respect but get outraged whenever anyone disputes their methods. The list goes on.

You’d think that the highest level of politics wouldn’t allow such behaviour, but no, seems more common than ever there. Wherever you find it, it’s often infuriating. Where do people get off dictating how others should behave, putting restrictions on what they can say and do that they don’t adhere to themselves? It’s wrong and immoral, and shows that they can’t be trusted.

Or does it? In the scientific sense, hypocrisy is somewhat more complicated. It can manifest in several ways, and for several reasons, and often times the people guilty of it aren’t doing it purely to be self-serving.


Sometimes timing is the difference between being called a hypocrite or a saint. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian


The nature and timing of hypocrisy

A lot of things that are labelled hypocrisy may not actually be hypocritical, and a lot of the time, things that are hypocritical are given a pass because they are consistent with the observer’s worldview.

For example, someone who urges people to give money to charity but is then found out to give nothing themselves, they’d be considered a hypocrite. But if someone is known to be something of a skinflint then starts urging people to give to charity, they may still be considered a hypocrite, but it’s also possible they’ve just had a change of heart. Changing your mind or working for redemption are regularly considered good things. Bob Cratchit didn’t stop to accuse Scrooge of being a hypocrite.

Also, people tend to react more strongly to hypocrisy when it includes criticism or negative judgement. Someone boasts about being a live music supporter but is found to never go to gigs? Hypocritical, annoying, but not really worth getting angry about. But, a right-wing politician condemns homosexuality and attacks gay rights, but is then found to be engaging in homosexual activity themselves?Appalling. People react strongly to perceived injustice, so hypocrisy like this will get them very angry and demanding retribution.

Similarly, people are far quicker to notice and call out hypocrisy when it goes against their own beliefs. A politician you oppose promotes family values but is caught having an affair? Hypocrite! Drum them out of office! But if it’s a politician you support? Gutter journalism! So he’s not perfect, give him another chance! There are more important issues to worry about etc.

Basically, people aren’t 100% rational or consistent. Value judgements are typically subjective rather than objective, so the extent and seriousness of the hypocrisy is often in the eye of the beholder. This feeds into hypocrisy in other ways too.


  We have a much higher opinion of ourselves than is usually warranted. Hopefully, other people will be willing to point this out. Photograph: PeopleImages.com/Getty Images
You think you’re better than others

Humans aren’t cold logical robots, and we typically have a higher opinion of ourselves than is warranted. Most humans have a self-serving bias, where we evaluate our own abilities and performance far more highly than is actually the case. People who achieve a certain level of intellectual achievement in certain contexts can reverse this, but we mostly think overly-well of ourselves.

It’s no surprise; the brain is riddled with cognitive and memory biases that are geared towards making us feel like we’re good and decent and capable, no matter what the reality. The problem is that our judgements of other people are far more “realistic”.

In some cases, this can lead to hypocrisy. A pilot would be well within her rights to stop an untrained person from assuming control of a plane, even though she does that all the time. This isn’t hypocrisy, this is simple acknowledgement of ability. Likewise, some people may tell others to do something and not do it themselves because they genuinely think they don’t need to do it, but the other inferior people need to be told. Not very nice, granted. May even not be a conscious decision. But it’s also not deliberate hypocrisy, if you look at it that way. Not that this makes any difference to the outcome, as far as most are concerned.


 Thinking one thing and doing another can cause a lot of internal distress, and you just want it to go away. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo


Dissonance is disturbing

Those of you who are familiar with cognitive dissonance, the process whereby a mismatch between behaviour and attitudes/beliefs causes discomfort in the brain, may wonder why this doesn’t undermine hypocritical behaviour. Surely it would prevent people from doing things they openly condemn?

Again, it depends on the situation. Often, the “I’m better than other people so it’s OK” conclusion would be enough to reconcile it. But other times, it gets more serious. Take the earlier examples of anti-gay politicians found to be engaging in homosexual acts. This comes across as immensely hypocritical so they should be experiencing serious dissonance. But it could be argued that their actions are an attempt to resolve the dissonance. You’re raised in an environment that believes homosexuality is a sin, and you end up believing this completely. Why wouldn’t you? Then you hit adolescence and it turns out you are homosexual (it’s not a choice, after all). Now you’ve got serious dissonance; beliefs that insist homosexuality is wrong combined with physical attraction to the same sex.

One way to resolve this is to double down on the anti-gay behaviour. “I can’t be gay, look how much I hate them and work against them!” Now your beliefs and behaviour are more consistent, a sort of “fake it ‘til you make it” approach. But it’s difficult to maintain, as sex is a very powerful motivator, and people often aren’t strong enough to fight it. So you end up with strident anti-gay campaigners submitting to their desires. It’s not intentional hypocrisy in a sense, and it would be easy to only pity them for their struggles if they didn’t harm anyone else.



But they do. So it isn’t.


  “I could work hard to be a good person, but... why bother?” Photograph: Blend Images/REX/Shutterstock


Hypocrisy is just easier

The problem with practising what you preach, or maintaining a high moral standard, is it’s work. You tell people to give money to charity or abstain from certain indulgences, this means you have to do these things too. But what if you just said you do these things, but didn’t? You get all the benefits of people thinking you’re a good and capable person, but you don’t have to practice any restraint. It’s win-win.

Humans are prone to the principal of least effort, often known as the “path of least resistance”, which means they’ll go for whatever option requires the least work. Hypocrisy allows you to appear principled without having to be so, which is much easier than adhering to strict principles. Modern politicians seem to have grasped this fact, making big speeches about all the great things they’ll do and then never doing any of them. Given how they seldom seem to suffer any consequences for their hypocrisy being revealed (i.e. any political event of 2016), why would they stop?

There are some positives though. Some studies show that, when called out on hypocrisy, people can end up more dedicated to the beliefs and practices they only claimed to adhere to previously. So don’t be afraid to point out hypocrisy when you see it, you might be doing some good overall.

And that includes hypocrisy about things you agree with, otherwise you’ll be… well, there’s a word for that.

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