Why We’re All Moral Hypocrites

As a society, we devote a lot of time shaking our heads at other people’s mishaps and/or lapses in moral judgement. We spend an excessive amount of energy discussing these errors in judgement, before offering our own views on the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of the situation. For example, recently I discovered that a friend was dating someone that had cheated on a previous partner, which immediately tarnished my perception of them before I’d met them. Then, but a few moments later, I remembered that not only has the friend in question done something similar a couple of years earlier and cheated on their last partner but so had I. I easily forgot my own misdoings and was so quick to judge someone else. Yet somehow, I continue to cling to the belief that I am a thoroughly moral person. I identify with the group of people who hold themselves in a high esteem in terms of moral standing and integrity, but quite frankly, whether we want to accept it or not, we’re all just moral hypocrites in one way or another.

The driving force behind hypocrisy

According to the Moral Foundations Theory, a human’s morality is founded upon five foundations (harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, in-group/loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity), and individuals with varying beliefs may be concerned with different foundations while building their moral systems (Graham et al., 2011).

Hypocrisy generally entails criticising or condemning the immoral acts of others (obviously what is deemed as ‘immoral’ differs between people), but then engaging in those acts we disavowed ourselves. Society judges people more harshly if they had criticised an immoral action, and then engaged in that very action, than the individuals who engaged in the immoral behaviour without criticising it.

Hypocrisy has been well-studied, and it is far more complicated than it first appears. It can manifest in a variety of ways, and for different reasons, and often times the individuals guilty of it aren’t consciously doing it purely to be self-serving.

However, self-interest is the most obvious rationale for any of us to be hypocrites. The human brain is permeated with cognitive and memory biases that are poised towards making us feel like we are good, decent and capable, regardless of the reality. It’s a by-product of millions of years progressing forward, in opposition against the same odds of survival that have erased 99% of species that once walked this world. As a result, we’ve all inherited a propensity to triumph, and to remain optimistic in the face of failure. In the modern world, we manicure, distort and manipulate our images of the ‘Self’ we publicise to others. In the words of Dani Shapiro:

“Is there anything less revealing of Self than a selfie?”

We’re also exceptionally adept at cultivating the very conditions that would contribute to our own confidence. From childhood, we learn the situations and behaviours that will give you attention, praise or some other reward, so you position yourself to pursue those situations that provide the opportunity for such exchanges with society. Eventually, you build and protect a bubble of positive illusions and delusions that make you feel good about yourself (with varying degrees of success I readily admit), which bleed into your perception of control and view when facing unknown difficulties. Self-esteem and self-efficacy join forces to get you out of bed in the morning, to keep you going back for more battering from a society that takes no prisoners.

This underpins our disposition to judge ourselves less severely than we do others, by seeing ourselves as remarkable and unique amongst a homogenous, bland majority.

If we’re so gloriously misguided about ourselves, it’s easy to see how we could bend and warp our morality to defend the social groups we identify with. We tend to judge people more favourably if others fall within our in-group (even if it’s a purely arbitrary in-group indicated by a random trait), judging their misbehaviour to be just as fair as our own. For those who fall outside these social circles we create ourselves, we judge far more severely.

For example, take a politician you oppose that claims to promote family values but is then caught having an affair? Hypocrite, they can’t be trusted! But if it’s a politician you support? It’s either fake news, character assassination, or the spouses’ fault!

Why is hypocrisy worse than lying?

There is a peculiarly repulsive nature of hypocrisy, and the level to which hypocrites are shunned can’t be explained by their transgressions alone. There are several reasons to explain this.

Firstly, hypocrisy involves incongruity between words and actions, which people have a strong tendency to dislike (Jordan et al., 2017). The hypocrite is someone who says one thing but does another. However, this cannot be the whole story, most of us are inconsistent every now and then. The disdain directed at hypocrisy appears to differ in kind and degree from other forms of inconsistency.

Another element might be that some hypocrites may be viewed as unable to resist the urge to transgress - a further negative quality. Combined with the condemnation of the immoral behaviour they engage in themselves, indicates that they understand the ‘wrongfulness’ of their deeds.

Another strong explanation appears in the form of false signalling. By dishonestly indicating moral ‘goodness’ - they active condemn immoral practices with the intent to signal they are morally honourable, then fail to act in line with those signals. In other words, we object to the misleading implication, not to a failure of character of the hypocrite. Hypocrites utilise a double layer of deception in their immoral behaviour - one more layer than simple liars who say they’ve acted morally when they haven’t. When we hypocritically chastise someone’s behaviour, we conceal our personal misdemeanours with a smokescreen of persuasiveness or manipulation.

Power and Corruption

“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” - Lord John Dalberg-Acton

The notion that power can promote hypocrisy is not novel, nor lacking for anecdotal proof. There seems to be an inverse correlation between power and integrity; the more a person’s authority increases, the less likely they would be to follow their own moral compass as they feel justified in their actions and motivations. “I can do what I like, because why else would I have this kind of power?”

In a series of studies by researchers from the Netherlands’ Tilburg University and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, they tested this hypothesis, which also investigated whether the connection between power and hypocrisy would be more evident in people who had earned their position of power, but less so in those who won their power illegitimately.

To manipulate the participant’s sense of power, half were asked to write about an experience in which they experienced legitimate high or low power, meaning they believed they were entitled to that high or low power position. The other half were asked to write about an experience of high or low illegitimate power, meaning they personally believed they were not entitled to that position. Then the researchers presented the participants with a moral dilemma, centered around keeping a stolen bike, and asked if it were acceptable for people to keep the stolen bike (others’ transgressions), or, asked if they would keep the stolen bike (own transgressions).

Their hypothesis was correct. Across all experiments, it was evident that ‘powerful’ participants were both more likely to stress the importance of moral integrity and were more likely to cheat. The powerful were more strict in judging other people’s moral transgression than in judging their own. Interestingly, the moral-hypocrisy effect was reversed for illegitimate powerful people: they become stricter in judging their own behaviour than in judging other people’s behaviour.

In the discussion of the research, they put forward the idea that:

“Power inspires hypocrisy: it makes people stricter in moral judgements of others but less strict in their behaviours… A position of power carries with it a sense of entitlement. As a result, the powerful feel they are entitled to deviate a bit from the moral rules that they demand others to follow”

By tolerating the hypocrisy of the powerful, the rest of us are only eternalising the cycle of social inequality and disenfranchisement among those without power. Given the fact that powerful people (such as politicians, judges etc) make critical decisions that may have moral considerations it can lend itself quickly to corruption, cheating, and fraud. They think that their power is legitimate, thus they are more entitled to more leeway in their behaviours and thoughts.

Some studies demonstrate that, when made accountable for hypocrisy, people can end up further devoted to the beliefs and applications they had only professed to abide by previously.

How we justify our own misdoings

When we act against our own beliefs, we typically experience cognitive dissonance (mental discomfort or psychological stress) as a result. Internally, we have to do some mental gymnastics to justify the inconsistency. The uncomfortable feelings as a result of hypocrisy can be justified if good and bad actions are perceived as balancing each other.

I’m sure we’ve all been guilty of visualising a ‘moral balance’ model; similar to like a bank account we can earn moral credit by acting morally. Then when the ‘desire’ strikes us make a withdrawal through immoral actions, mentally keeping track to some extent, making sure the overall balance doesn’t drop below a self-imposed baseline. (The depth of the baseline perhaps having something to do with your general approach to moral behaviour).

The very fact of holding a moral intention may allow some individuals to feel they have already done their ‘share’, illogically relaxing the need to actually implement the intentions. For example, touting your support for green initiatives and environmental sustainability, but failing to actually recycle anything or go out of your way to reduce your waste. This can explain those people not actually following through on their intentions despite being in perfectly good faith in those intentions.

If we recognise our ethical inconsistencies, there are many ways to redefine the behaviour to make it seem more acceptable. For example, cheating on your partner because they have done the same to you before; doesn’t make it right, and it might go against your own moral standards, but you can attempt to justify it in this way. People may also justify their behaviour by referencing supposed norms (“everyone else is doing it”), to external forces (“if I don’t do it, I’d be fired) or to altruism and a greater cause (this is what it takes to ensure people don’t lose their jobs).

Redefinitions, reinterpretations, justifications… they all allow us to make small, seemingly unnoticeable deviations from our moral standards.

One interesting piece of research (Wang et al., 2016) has shown that self-compassion is linked to less acceptance of one’s own immoral behaviours, and are more likely to remedy their faults. Self-compassionate people, to some extent, prevent themselves from committing the same moral transgressions in the future. Self-compassion is defined as a healthy and kind attitude to oneself, originating from Buddhist philosophy and is devised of three components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

What can we do about hypocrisy? Promote self-compassion? To some extent, hypocrisy is driven by mental processes over which we have some volitional control and ones that if we are aware of, we can override it by recognising and admitting to. Whilst internally recognising your own misdemeanours could tend towards a long-term positive effect, highlighting other peoples ‘mistakes’ may result in a more negative pushback - so be delicate.

The further conundrum of pointing out hypocrites is that if you are opening yourself up easily enough to become one. If you point the finger, but can’t take it being pointed at you, then you’ll undoubtedly fall a the first hurdle.

Perhaps then, self-compassion is part of the answer. Breeding a self-awareness of actions and responsibilities may lead to greater moral foundations. I think that the current social behaviour movements calling for change, such as the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, are making progress to challenge positions of power, how power is distributed and making sure individuals are held accountable when power is abused. In creating an environment where we are more likely to call out hypocrisy, lying and cheating, we can diminish those very behaviours.

We’re all human, we all have flaws, and we should recognise our inability to admit when we fail to live up to our own standards to regain integrity. Being a hypocrite is a detestable character trait. And the first step is to admit, one that I have taken. But let us work on it. Together.