The Science of Hypocrisy

Why we seem to despise hypocrites more than outright liars

For many of us, a huge part of daily conversation revolves around gossip. We love to talk about the blunders and missteps of friends, family, and celebrities. On top of that, news organizations and social networks are like outrage amplifiers because that’s what gets the clicks. We are all used to name-calling in the news, especially when it’s directed at politicians or performers. But there’s one particular name that really gets our attention.

If you want to destroy someone, call them a “hypocrite.”

Hypocrisy typically involves criticizing or condemning the immoral acts of others while engaging in those acts ourselves. This can make us look worse than if we engaged in those immoral acts but didn’t criticize them at all, which might sound odd. But would you rather someone engaged in immoral behavior and criticized it or engaged in immoral behavior and didn’t criticize it? Diving into the psychology of hypocrisy can make how we feel about it make more sense.

Testing for hypocrisy

An experiment in 2001 aimed to turn people into hypocrites in the lab. Participants were to assign a set of tasks to themselves and an unknown second participant. One type of task was exciting and offered rewards while the other was neutral with no rewards. A coin placed next to the participants had a written instruction explaining that most people believed flipping the coin would be a fair way to distribute the tasks. Indeed, practically all of the participants agreed that flipping the coin to assign tasks would be the most moral thing.

But when it came down to it, only half of them actually flipped the coin, with practically everybody in the non-coin-flipping half giving themselves the exciting tasks. Among the people who did flip the coin — which was labeled “self” on one side and “other” on the other — 85% to 90% still managed to assign the exciting task to themselves. Clearly, either the coin was a magical sycophant or the participants pretended the coin had landed in their favor when it really hadn’t.

People wanted to look fair by using a coin to make their decision, but behind the scenes, they were just as selfish as the people who did not use the coin at all (most of whom had agreed using the coin would be the most fair but didn’t do it). It’s all a perfect example of moral hypocrisy at work.

The drive behind hypocrisy

Self-interest is the most obvious reason for any of us to act like hypocrites. When people are questioned about why they act in conflict with their own stated moral standards, many will say that the personal costs are enough to outweigh the intention to act morally. Essentially, we all want to act fairly until we are put on the spot and facing our own personal consequences. For example, it’s easy to justify many of our unfulfilled wishes to donate to charities and failed inclinations to help a stranger in need by telling ourselves that we just can’t afford to do it right now.

We all want to act fairly until we are put on the spot and facing our own personal consequences.

Our hypocrisy helps us out, that’s for sure. But we also use it in our relationships. Often, when we rate the fairness or morality of other people’s actions, we judge them more harshly than we judge ourselves doing the same actions. In a 2007 report on a modification of the exciting task/boring task paradigm described earlier, participants afterward were told to judge their and others’ fairness on a scale from 1 (extremely unfair) to 7 (extremely fair). People scored themselves a 4 on average but rated others’ fairness at only a 3 on average.

Interestingly, our judgments of other people tend to be far more favorable if those others fall within our in-group (even if it’s a purely arbitrary in-group characterized by a random trait). We often judge an in-group member’s misbehavior to be just as fair as our own. We only have a greater distaste for other people’s bad behaviors when those people fall outside a social circle that we ourselves have drawn.

But why is hypocrisy so distasteful?

We’ve covered what hypocrisy looks like and what motivates it, but we haven’t tackled why we seem to hate it so much. One strong explanation relates to false signaling. In essence, hypocrites employ a double layer of deception in their immoral acts — one more layer than the basic liars who simply say they’ve acted morally when they haven’t. When we hypocritically condemn someone’s immoral behavior, we disguise our personal misbehavior with a veil of persuasiveness or manipulation. It’s easier to see through an outright lie than a hypocrite’s condemnation. On top of that, a hypocrite has brought another person into the game. Instead of directly denying their immorality, the hypocrite sneakily implies they are good by attempting to shame someone else. This is a recipe for hatred when caught out.

Hypocrites employ a double layer of deception in their immoral acts — one more layer than the basic liars who simply say they’ve acted morally when they haven’t.

A set of recent experiments had Yale faculty testing this false signaling theory by giving people stories about different kinds of liars and hypocrites and then studying how people judged the characters within those stories. Four important results came out of these trials:

  1. When a person condemns other people’s behavior and we know nothing else about that person, we typically believe it comes from their moral goodness.
  2. Condemnation of bad behavior is a stronger signal of a person’s moral goodness than claims of personally avoiding bad behavior.
  3. When a person condemns a behavior that they themselves commit (hypocrite), we rate them as significantly worse than a person who says they don’t commit a behavior when they do (liar).
  4. We perceive hypocrites better if they admit to sometimes engaging in the bad behavior than if they make no such admission.

Overall, it backs up the idea that we have a greater tolerance for liars than we have for hypocrites. Hypocrites are like a special type of liar who puts extra effort into disguising their misbehavior and sending us false signals of moral superiority. Those false signals drive our contempt. If a hypocrite is honest about their hypocrisy — if they get rid of false signals by admitting to what they condemn — our view of them can become significantly more favorable.

Perhaps there’s a lesson we can learn here. If we’re going to lie, that’s bad enough; let’s try not to fool and distract other people by pointing the finger. Sometimes, it’s okay to be transparent about our flaws. Nobody is perfect, but honest self-criticism and the ability to admit when we fail to live up to our own standards may be a good foundation for integrity. Hypocrites are terrible people. And occasionally, I’m one of them.