Image Credit: Marian Fayolle/NYT

What, exactly, is the problem with hypocrisy? When someone condemns the behaviour of others, why do we find it so objectionable if we learn he engages in the same behaviour himself?

The answer may seem self-evident. Not practising what you preach; lacking the willpower to live up to your own ideals; behaving in ways you obviously know are wrong — these are clear moral failings.

Perhaps. But new research of ours, forthcoming in the journal “Psychological Science” (and in collaboration with our colleague Paul Bloom), suggests a different explanation. We contend that the reason people dislike hypocrites is that their outspoken moralising falsely signals their own virtue. People object, in other words, to the misleading implication — not to a failure of will or a weakness of character.

Imagine you have a co-worker who is something of an environmental activist. He hounds people to turn off their office lights when they step out for lunch and gets on their case if they throw recyclables in the trash. He protests when people print documents single-sided instead of double-sided. While he is overbearing at times, you agree with everything he advocates.

Now imagine you discover that your co-worker, when at home, regularly fails to do any of these things. He is a hypocrite. You promptly revoke the moral credit you gave him for his activism. In fact, his hypocrisy now makes his activism seem not just not-positive, but negative: how dare he go around telling other people to switch off their lights when he doesn’t do so himself!

This dislike of hypocrisy is emotionally intuitive, but if you pause to think about it, it constitutes a psychological puzzle. If you believe it’s important to protect the environment, shouldn’t you be glad your co-worker is promoting the right values (even if he himself is wasteful)? Logically speaking, there is nothing dishonest about condemning an action and also engaging in it. So why does criticising something make it seem worse to do it oneself?

Our contention is that your objection to your co-worker is perfectly logical, because the principal offence of a hypocrite is not that he violates his own principles, but rather that his use of moral proclamations falsely implies that he himself behaves morally.

This idea makes sense if you think about moral condemnation not as a tool for reproaching others but as a way to boost your own reputation. In one set of studies, we found support for this view: people tended to take someone’s normative statements — such as “It is morally wrong to waste energy” — as an indication of how the speaker himself acted. In fact, our findings show that people would be more likely to believe that the speaker did not waste energy if he said, “It is wrong to waste energy,” than if he simply said, “I do not waste energy.” Moral condemnation seems to act as a particularly powerful signal of behaviour — more powerful than even direct statements about behaviour.

Once you understand moral criticism this way, you can see why people feel deceived by hypocrites. In another set of studies, we found that people viewed hypocrites as dishonest — more dishonest, in fact, than people who uttered outright falsehoods. Remarkably, hypocrites were rated as less trustworthy, less likable and less morally upright than those who openly lied: for example, characters who wasted energy after explicitly stating that they never wasted energy.

To further test our theory, we asked people to judge “non-signalling” hypocrites: those who hypocritically condemn behaviours they engage in, but who explicitly avoid implying anything virtuous about their personal behaviour — by saying, for instance, “I think it’s morally wrong to waste energy, but I sometimes do it anyway.”

We found that people judged these non-signalling hypocrites much more positively than they judged traditional hypocrites. In fact, they let these non-signalling hypocrites entirely off the hook, rating them as no worse than those who engaged in the same bad behaviour but did not condemn others for it. This seemingly strange result — that admitting to wrongdoing improves one’s reputation, when one is a hypocrite — validates our theory that the reason we dislike hypocrisy is that it involves false signalling.

Together, our studies clarify why your co-worker’s hypocrisy is so irritating, even though he has a positive environmental impact by encouraging people to reduce their consumption. It’s not simply that he fails to practise what he preaches or that he criticises others for transgressions he, too, commits. It’s that his outspoken moralising falsely conveys his own virtue, earning him undue reputational benefits — and at the expense of the individuals whom he publicly shames. He would be better off if he simply admitted that he sometimes falls short of these ideals himself.

–New York Times News Service

Jillian Jordan and Roseanna Sommers are graduate students, and David Rand is an associate professor, in the psychology department at Yale.