Monday, September 21, 2015

A Theory of Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy, let's say, is when someone conspicuously advocates some particular moral rule while also secretly, or at least much less conspicuously, violating that moral rule (and doing so at least as much as does the average member of her audience).

It's hard to know exactly how common hypocrisy is, because people tend to hide their embarrassing behavior and because the psychology of moral advocacy is itself a complex and understudied issue. But it seems likely that hypocrisy is more common than a purely strategic analysis of its advantages would predict. I think of the "family values" and anti-homosexuality politicians and preachers who seem disproportionately likely to be caught in gay affairs, of the angry, judgmental people I know who emphasize how important it is to peacefully control one's emotions, of police officers who break the laws they enforce on others, of Al Gore's (formerly?) environmentally-unfriendly personal habits, and of the staff member here at UCR who was in charge of prosecuting academic misconduct and who was later dismissed for having grossly falsified his resume.

Now, anti-homosexuality preachers might or might not be more likely than their parishioners to have homosexual affairs, etc. But it's striking to me that the rates even come close, as it seems to me they do. A purely strategic analysis of hypocrisy suggests that, in general, people who conspicuously condemn X should have low rates of X, since the costs of advocating one thing and doing another are typically high. Among those costs: creating a climate in which X-ish behavior, which you engage in, is generally more condemned; attracting friends and allies who are especially likely to condemn the types of behavior you secretly engage in; attracting extra scrutiny of whether you in fact do X or not; and attracting the charge of hypocrisy, in addition to the charge of X-ing itself, if your X-ing is discovered, substantially reducing the chance that you will be forgiven. It seems strategically foolish for a preacher with a secret homosexual lover to choose anti-homosexuality to be a central platform of his preaching!

Here's what I suspect is going on.

People do not aim to be saints, nor even to be much morally better than their neighbors. They aim instead for moral mediocrity. If I see a bunch of people profiting from doing something that I regard as morally wrong, I want to do that thing too. No fair that (say) 15% of people cheat on the test and get A's, or regularly get away with underreporting their self-employment income. I want to benefit, if they are! This reasoning is tempting even if the cheaters are a minority and honest people are the majority.

Now consider the preacher tempted by homosexuality or the environmentalist who wants to eat steaks in her large air-conditioned house. They might be entirely sincere in their moral opinions. Hypocrisy needn't involve insincere commitment to the moral ideas one espouses (though of course it can be insincere). Still, they see so many others getting away with what they condemn that they (not aiming to be a lot better than their neighbors) might well feel licensed to indulge themselves a bit too.

Furthermore, if they are especially interested in the issue, violations of those norms might be more salient and visible to them than for the average person. The person who works in the IRS office sees how frequent and easy it is to cheat on one's taxes. The anti-homosexual preacher sees himself in a world full of gays. The environmentalist grumpily notices all the giant SUVs rolling down the road. Due to an increased salience of violations of the norms they most care about, people might tend to overestimate the frequency of the violations of those norms -- and then when they calibrate toward mediocrity, their scale might be skewed toward estimating high rates of violation. This combination of increased salience of unpunished violations plus calibration toward mediocrity might partly explain why hypocritical norm violations are more common than a purely strategic account might suggest.

But I don't think that's enough by itself to explain the phenomenon, since one might still expect people to tend to avoid conspicuous moral advocacy on issues where they know they are average-to-weak; and even if their calibration scale is skewed a bit high, they might hope to pitch their own behavior especially toward the good side on that particular issue -- maybe compensating by allowing themselves more laxity on other issues.

So here's the final piece of the puzzle:

Suppose that there's a norm that you find yourself especially tempted to violate, though you succeed for a while, at substantial personal cost, in not violating it. You love cheeseburgers but go vegetarian; you have intense homosexual desires but avoid acting on them. Envy might lead you to be especially condemnatory of other people who still do such things. If you've worked so hard, they should too! It's an issue you've struggled with personally, so now you have wisdom about it, you think. You want to try to make sure that others don't get away with that sin you've worked so hard to avoid. Moreover, optimistic self-illusions might lead you to overestimate the likelihood that you will stay strong and not lapse. These envious, self-confident moments are the moments when you are most likely to conspicuously condemn those behaviors to which you are tempted. But after you're on the hook for it, if you've been sufficiently conspicuous in your condemnations, it becomes hard to change your tune later, even after you have lapsed.

[image source; more on Rekers]


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

On Facebook, Jonathan Kaplan posted this comment, which I found helpful enough that I wanted to share it here:

"But I don't think it is at all hypocritical to be an environmentalist committed to combating climate change, and taking no steps in one's personal life to do so. If one thinks, as is surely correct, that climate change is an especially ugly collective action problem, with very powerful groups poised to lose almost unthinkable amounts of money if it is actually addressed, one might reasonably conclude that any policy that promotes individual decision making as the solution is just stupid, and in fact, more likely to do harm than good ("If we all just made good decisions..." No. That won't in fact work, and pretending that it will distracts us from e.g. the hard work of forging enforceable international agreements.)"

My reply: Good point, Jonathan Kaplan. I'd be inclined to distinguish two cases here. A non-hypocritical case would be to defend the implementation of environmental regulations from the top down, while doing nothing personally other than that. A hypocritical case would be to scold someone for running her A/C at 76 degrees while running one's own at 75 degrees (without good reason). There will be a range of intermediate cases between these that might be more nuanced in terms of the presence or absence of hypocrisy.

howie berman said...

To augment your analysis (I think) hypocrisy is like cheating on your diet or failing to do anything you really want- the diet book I read (by a cognitive psychologist) taught me how easy it is to violate your diet unless a series of techniques, like using index cards to remind you why you want to diet are employed.
The analogy is the great philosophical schools who employed a whole cognitive and behavioral regimen to overcome temptation.
What I'm saying is that belief (professed belief) is insufficient and needs to be backed up by reinforcement and cognitive techniques to be effective
we are easily unmoored.
This is compatible I suppose with your theory

Rolf Degen said...

Hello Eric, thanks for touching one of the most exciting topics in social psychology, no matter in what bad shape that field now stands. I would like to add a few points. One, the fundamental attribution error might be at play: When we "sin" ourselves, we can see the situation and reflect on the situational triggers which "made" us behave badly. Watching others, our attention is fixed on their behavior, giving the impression that they acted from "bad" character.

Furthermore, if we act badly, we are aware of all the rationalizations and instances of "dissonance reduction" that make our bad behavior appear understandable, if not noble to ourselves. We don't see these "attenuating circumstances" in others. Still, there must be more going on. This is a "biblical" subject.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, Howie and Rolf!

Howie: Yes, it is an interesting analogy, I think, moral behavior and dieting. In both cases, it's so tempting and easy to come up with excuses, to miscount and mis-estimate, and in general to feel like you're exerting effort and trying to make progress while in fact you aren't progressing at all!

Rolf: Yes -- I 100% agree! Thanks for highlight this dimension of it.

Unknown said...

Having just finished a Socratic conversation, with my wife and 6 month old grandchild on her lap about 'being aware of going down that road and resting on laurels' I now engage the Platonic way...note, for the philosopher, salient conduct with-without purpose could lead to the friction needed for the neutrality in transformation instead of the inconspicuousness of transition....

Callan S. said...

With the preacher, I'd attribute a different psychological ecology (especially in regards to being 'tempted' to homosexuality. Tempted to engage in his sexuality is different than that)

What's the best way to avoid being killed by a nazi? Become a nazi!

What's the best way to survive in a community that hates homosexuals, when you are one? Become a hater!

Ironically, driven by the need to survive and then running into the temptation of riches that come from really inciting hatred (and there are riches in it!), they become paragons of hating...the thing they are.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Scott Bakker writes:

If you situate these behaviours in a hunter gatherer context, I think the apparent irrationality of the risk/reward evaporates, and you can see acts of egregious hypocrisy (apart from hypocrisy more generally) in quite a different light. In small communities characterized by extreme codependence, the chances of acting on taboo urges are accordingly smaller. Verbally condemning the activity, publicly professing outrage at these urges, can be seen as a management strategy, a way to leverage normative behaviour via pitting social instincts against reproductive ones, say. These people are instinctively making it more difficult to do what they do, the problem being that the impersonal nature of the modern social world renders the strategy effectively toothless. It could just be a malfunctioning coping mechanism.

Hypocrisy more generally seems to turn on 'situational opportunism,' the local exploitation of attention and memory limitations, stuff like that, and 'ingroup opportunism,' the ways in which we manage interpersonal relations via mutual 'other-way-looking.' It's quite different than the spectacular instances of Eliot Spitzer or Jimmy Swaggart, say. For one, we find the opportunistic brands so forgivable as be invisible. The egregious species we generally greet with our own public demonstrations of outrage.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: You write: "What's the best way to survive in a community that hates homosexuals, when you are one? Become a hater!" Yeah, sometimes that can be a good strategy, especially if you can deflect suspicions about your own behavior that way ("He hates them so much, it's not possible he could be one, despite this one reason to be suspicious.") But it's a high-risk strategy, and I'm not sure it's generally optimal, especially if there are ways to exit the community to find a similar community that is more tolerant.

Scott: That seems about right to me (although "so forgivable as to be invisible" is a little too strongly put, maybe). I especially like your point about how it might play out differently in small communities. I do think that public pronouncements can have this self-regulatory effect (a point Victoria McGeer has nicely emphasized), and that can be part of the function of such pronouncements. It’s a nice further thought that technique might have worked better in ancestral environments than in the modern metropolis.

Callan S. said...

Eric, well it's probably a throwback to a tribal time as Scott suggests. But even then, exactly how easy is it to hop between communities? In terms of getting a job, lots of people agree it's not what you know, but who you know. Hopping communities means giving up the job in that community and hitting a network brick wall.

Plus if those new communities are, say, not terribly forgiving of you giving hate speach against them, you can't join them or will join only to be found out eventually. As soon as you lay out some hate against what you actually are, you're commited to the community you're in.

I feel like I'm describing chess configurations, heh!

Callan S. said...

For one, we find the opportunistic brands so forgivable as be invisible. The egregious species we generally greet with our own public demonstrations of outrage.

Aww, so cruel!

David Duffy said...

Like in the small town surveillance state where everyone knows your business?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: Fair enough.

David: Right -- obviously some disadvantages to that!

Robert Long said...

Hello Eric,

Thanks for this thought-provoking post. It seems to me that a major cost of hypocrisy, in addition to the ones you mentioned, is cognitive dissonance. Thus, hypocrisy often results in unprincipled adjustment of beliefs to suit behavior.

I wanted to flag my favorite quote on hypocrisy, by George Eliot in Middlemarch:

There may be coarse hypocrites, who consciously affect beliefs and emotions for the sake of gulling the world, but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs. If this be hypocrisy, it is a process which shows itself occasionally in us all, to whatever confession we belong...

(G.A. Cohen puts this quote to apt use here:


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Robert -- thanks for the quote and the reference to that very cool essay by G.A. Cohen. On cognitive dissonance, I think that's one way *out* of hypocrisy. One adjusts one's beliefs to match one's behavior. Then one can be entirely sincere!

That's part of why I think there can be something admirable about the hypocrite. She continues to affirm her principles rather than giving into the pressure to shift her principles to suit her behavior. I'd rather have a hypocritical Nazi who secretly loves Jews than someone who has tweaked hismelf into sincere Jew-hatred via cognitive dissonance.