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Who Are You Calling a Hypocrite? A Guest Post

David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, has done some interesting research on hypocrisy and morals, which has appeared recently in Newsweek and The Times. DeSteno has agreed to blog about his findings here.

With the election season fast approaching, epithets of “hypocrite” are flying. You know the implications — hypocrites cannot be trusted, they’re morally compromised. Whether pointing to Obama or McCain (and to whom you point may depend on your inclinations), there are lots of stones being hurled from glass houses.

Now we can all readily point out the high profile cases of hypocrisy we see on the evening news, and just as readily condemn them. These “hypocrites,” however, seem to be a corrupt few (well, few if you treat politicians as a single unit). Yet my collaborator, Piercarlo Valdesolo, and I thought that this seemingly distant phenomenon might not be as removed from everyday life as one might think. After all, decades of work in social psychology have shown that humans possess a very powerful motive to hold positive views of themselves.

David Dunning has repeatedly shown that most of us think we’re above average (explain that to your mathematician friends). Yet, we certainly know that people often act in questionable, self-serving ways. These findings raise interesting questions. Are people typically hypocritical and if so, why?

To examine this issue, we designed a simple experiment in which we confronted people with one of two scenarios. In the first, they were told that there were two tasks — one short and fun, the other long and onerous. Their job was to assign the tasks to the next participant and themselves. We told them that most people thought flipping a coin was the fairest way to do this (and we provided them with a computer program that would do a random coin flip), but they could arrive at the decision however they wished.

What we found will not increase your faith in your fellow human. Only 8 percent of participants decided to “flip the coin.” The rest assigned themselves the easy task.

Lest you think they didn’t see this as wrong, a separate sample of similar individuals unanimously indicated that simply giving oneself the preferable task was morally incorrect. We then asked the remaining 92 percent how fairly they acted. As you can see (in the control condition), they believed themselves untarnished, scoring above the midpoint on our 7 point fairness scale.

In the second scenario, we had a different set of participants watch another person commit the exact same transgression — he simply assigned himself the fun task without using the randomizer. When these participants judged the fairness of his actions, he got slammed. It’s not the act that counts, but rather who does it.

Now, this raises a problem. If we’re always ready to be hypocritical, what does this imply about our ability to be trustworthy partners? If we always cut ourselves slack without any pangs of guilt, why would we ever trust each other?

Our hunch was that somewhere lurking in the mind is a sensitivity to even our own fairness transgressions. Hypocrisy, then, might just be a post hoc justification to protect our egos.

To examine this issue we repeated the experiment, but had participants make judgments of fairness while completing a secondary task (referred to as a “cognitive load”) that prevented them from “reasoning away” their actions by keeping them somewhat distracted. These conditions would reveal the mind’s spontaneous response to breaking a fairness norm.


As you can see, hypocrisy disappeared. People were just as sensitive to their own transgressions as they were to those of others.

Thus, at heart, I would argue we’re designed to be fair, but left to the luxury of time and our own devices hypocrisy readily emerges.

If this is true, what does that say about how we engage in relationships with others? Most people clearly possess a deep sensitivity to violations of fairness, yet most also readily act hypocritically when it serves them. Are we better off with the “honest veneer” that makes us seem moral and thereby worthy partners? Or, as one person asked me recently, “Might we be better off interacting with people with ADD as, given your distraction data, Prof. DeSteno, one might suppose them to be less hypocritical?”

I’ll post my ideas on these questions on Wednesday, along with examining how the processes underlying hypocrisy may interact with the dynamics of social affiliation and intergroup conflict. As a teaser, let’s just say that our “self-halo” may be a bit flexible by design. Until then, I look forward to your thoughts.