Better to be known as a sinner than a hypocrite. — Proverb
One of the greatest moral transgressions someone can commit is failing to dispose of their dog’s excrement after it’s been excreted. This comes after my freshman year in high school when I unwittingly made a trail of dog poop footprints straight to my locker due to some depraved individual.
And yet at the same time…I was walking my dog the other day when he unexpectedly decided to go for an encore performance. But I’d only brought the first bag already in use…
what to do… what to do…
By the title of today’s post, you can probably guess what I didn’t do.
ARE YOU, TOO, A HYPOCRITE?
Who is a hypocrite? What is a hypocrite? Why do we despise them so thoroughly?
Typically, a hypocrite is defined as a person who “says one thing but does another.”
But if you talk to modern philosophers about this topic, they divide hypocritical acts into one of four categories: inconsistency, blame, pretense, and complacency.
- Inconsistency: requiring other people to do things you yourself don’t do (e.g., telling other people to pick up after their dog, but then strolling right on along when it comes to your own)
- Blame: when you criticize others for something you yourself already do (e.g., getting mad at someone smacking their lips when eating, while you chew as loud as a woodchipper yourself)
- Pretense: claiming to believe something even though you personally don’t agree with it (e.g., agreeing with other people that The Matrix II & III were terrible, when secretly you loved them)
- Complacency: claiming to have a set of beliefs, but only doing the bare minimum to keep up with those beliefs (e.g., a practicing-Christian who only goes to church on Christmas)
Now, although these are four different ways to act hypocritically, they all result in the same thing: being labeled a hypocrite. What’s particularly important, then, are the subtle factors that impact how hypocritical we call the person.
For example, if the hypocrite ends up getting punished (vs. rewarded) for their inconsistent behavior, we tend to view them as being less hypocritical. Similarly, if the hypocritical person’s inconsistent behavior is something you agree with (e.g., a guy who has previously acted sexist now acts egalitarian) the behavior is also viewed as less hypocritical.
BUT WHY DO WE TYPICALLY HATE IT?
Even though there are instances where we’re more tolerable of hypocrisy, by and large, we really hate it in others. From multiple theoreticians, there are multiple reasons for this, but one in particular is this notion of false signaling.
When people tell us things, we tend to believe them. This then helps us predict their behavior and how we should act around them. But when people tell us one thing, then do something contrary, our brains don’t like it. Human psychology is all about expectations and predictions for the world around us. When a person acts hypocritically, we get frustrated by the prediction error they’ve caused.
Again, there are multiple other reasons to dislike hypocrites, but one fundamental cause is the uncertainty caused by the hypocrite’s unexpected behavior.
So there you have it! You’re a hypocritical expert! …or are you? Check out the Psychophilosophy to Ponder section for probably today’s most interesting revelation.
Psychophilosophy to Ponder: Who is more likely to act hypocritically–you or a random stranger? If you know anything about people’s tendency to show the better-than-average effect, the answer is clear: it’s probably about 50-50 who’s more hypocritical. But one particular application comes in the form of moral hypocrisy.
For example, one team of researchers found that people will say an act is immoral (e.g., cheating in a laboratory task to get an advantage over another participant), but will then usually go on to do it anyways (e.g., cheat to avoid a boring task). But of all the things to act hypocritically on, you’d think morals (those unchanging ideals we elevate so dear) would be one of the least likely.
But of course we humans are pretty good at excusing ourselves.
For example, we often claim that our own moral violations (e.g., cheating to get an advantage) is not a “moral” violation in that particular instance (e.g., “this isn’t real cheating”), which allows us to excuse the behavior. So, the next time you find yourself willing to bend the rules for something you would otherwise call immoral, ask yourself how you would judge someone else doing the same act.
Alicke, M., Gordon, E., & Rose, D. (2013). Hypocrisy: What counts?. Philosophical Psychology, 26(5), 673-701.
Batson, C. D., Kobrynowicz, D., Dinnerstein, J. L., Kampf, H. C., & Wilson, A. D. (1997). In a very different voice: Unmasking moral hypocrisy. Journal of personality and social psychology, 72(6), 1335.
Effron, D. A., & Miller, D. T. (2015). Do as I say, not as I’ve done: Suffering for a misdeed reduces the hypocrisy of advising others against it. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 131, 16-32.
Hale, W. J., & Pillow, D. R. (2015). Asymmetries in perceptions of self and others’ hypocrisy: Rethinking the meaning and perception of the construct. European journal of social psychology, 45(1), 88-98.
Jordan, J. J., Sommers, R., Bloom, P., & Rand, D. G. (2017). Why do we hate hypocrites? Evidence for a theory of false signaling. Psychological science, 28(3), 356-368.