Here's the Scientific Reason Why We Hate Hypocrites

To avoid negative backlash, say researchers, it's best to be honest about your shortcomings up front.

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Nobody likes a hypocrite. Now, new research gets at the root of why, exactly, hypocritical behavior gets under our skin so much. It turns out, say scientists, it’s because it gives us a false impression of someone’s values—and sorely disappoints us when we discover the real truth.

“There are tons of interesting cases of hypocrisy—when people engage in the very actions they condemn others for taking—in the world around us, from politics to literature to everyday cases like an environmentalist coworker who you privately catch leaving his lights on,” said lead author Jillian Jordan, a Yale University graduate student in psychology, in a press release. “While we all intuitively feel like it’s obvious that we should hate hypocrites, when you stop to think about it, it’s actually a psychological puzzle.”

In a series of experiments published in the journal Psychological Science, Jordan and her coauthors found that people dislike hypocritical flip-floppers even more than those who always admit to engaging in unsavory behavior and those who always lie about them.

For one study, participants were presented with hypothetical conversations between several characters, about different moral transgressions—an athlete taking performance-enhancing drugs or a person being unfaithful to their spouse, for example. Without knowing how any of the characters actually acted, study participants rated those who spoke out against these behaviors as more trustworthy and likeable.

This makes sense, say the researchers: Overall, we tend to interpret condemnation as a signal of moral behavior. And, in fact, a second study showed that condemning bad behavior among others earned characters a bigger reputation boost than directly stating that they didn’t engage in the behavior themselves.

A third study showed that we dislike hypocrites even more than we dislike liars who keep their transgressions secret: Participants had a lower opinion of a characters who downloaded illegal music after condemning the behavior in others, versus those who downloaded illegal music after directly denying ever doing so. 

There was one type of hypocrite that didn’t get such a bad rap, though: In a fourth study, people tended to forgive so-called “honest hypocrites”—a person who says it’s morally wrong to download music illegally, but admits she sometimes does it anyway, for example. This suggests, say the study authors, that our dislike for hypocrites stems from the fact that they falsely signal their intentions; when they’re open about their shortcomings in the first place, it’s not so bad.

In other words, we feel duped when people talk one way and act another. “They unfairly use condemnation to gain reputational benefits and appear virtuous at the expense of those who they are condemning,” said Jordan, “when these reputational benefits are in fact undeserved”

In the study, the authors write that hypocrites “free-ride” by implying that they will behave morally, without actually incurring the costs of actually doing so. In short, they conclude, “their condemnation falsely signals moral goodness.”

But let's be honest here: We've all been guilty of this type of bait-and-switch behavior at one point or another. So how can we avoid being so harshly judged? 

"Our work shows that if you're going to engage in moral condemnation of behaviors that you yourself engage in, you should admit that you sometimes engage in those behaviors," Jordan told RealSimple.com. "It may seem counterintuitive that directly confessing to your transgressions can improve your reputation, but our research shows that it's better than being discovered to be a hypocrite."