Inside the Mind of a Hypocrite

Why hypocrisy bothers us so much, and how politicians can rationalize it anyway

Alex Brandon / AP

In the wake of the shooting of Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise, Kellyanne Conway said on Fox News that “You can’t attack people personally in a way and think that tragedies like this won’t happen.”

Oh, can’t you? Because if memory serves, her boss is notorious for attacking a few people personally. Three hundred and thirty-two of them, to be exact. Okay, that includes places and things, but Donald Trump has also insulted politicians, celebrities, and journalists, such as Fox’s own Brit Hume, whom Trump deemed “a dope.”

That’s the kind of “viciousness” that Ivanka Trump said she just wasn’t expecting from Washington—a remark that set off a round of tweets showing her father mocking disabled people, among other things.

Sure, politicians are notorious for their hypocrisy. Critics of Democrats had no shortage of examples of two-facedness over the past eight years, whether it was Barack Obama’s lip-service to press freedom coupled with a war on leaks or Hillary Clinton’s raking in Goldman Sachs speaking fees while claiming to be a champion of the common man.

But now the pendulum has swung, and liberals are left with little to do but point out stuff like this: Republicans rushed their Obamacare replacement bill through a House vote without knowing how it would affect their constituents, after complaining for years that the problem with Obamacare was that it was too hurried.

People hate hypocrites, as an interesting recent study from Yale University researchers found, not because their beliefs and actions are inconsistent, but because their moral proclamations imply—falsely—that they are more virtuous than they really are.

As the study authors described in a recent New York Times op-ed, people are more likely to believe that someone does not waste energy if he says “It is wrong to waste energy” than if he says “I do not waste energy.” We believe the moral assertions of hypocrites more, so we feel more let down when those assertions prove to be BS.

And, perhaps expectedly, we’re harder on hypocrites when they belong to the opposite group. Look at hypocrite from your own tribe, and the alternate explanations begin to creep in: “He’s still new at this!” In fact, when the leader of a group gets caught behaving hypocritically, members of that group will rally behind the hypocritical leader, rather than abandon him, according to Jeff Stone, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona.

“This might be one reason why we see some members of a political party continue to bolster their support for a leading politician from the party who is perceived as hypocritical,” Stone says—noting that’s the case for both sides of the aisle. “They have to support the politician because the group is such an important reflection of who they are and what they believe.”

Of course, the Twitter peanut gallery knows hypocrisy when it sees it, but do the hypocrites themselves? Do politicians—or regular people—realize when they’re contradicting themselves?

First, it’s worth noting there are reasons for going back on a statement other than hypocrisy, like having a weak will, changing one’s mind, or realizing a lofty idea is just not practical. Hypocrisy’s telltale sign, meanwhile, is that holier-than-thou attitude, the haughty tsk-tsking from the gutter. You can’t attack people personally.

Dan Stalder, a psychology professor at University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, told me that people don’t typically realize when they’re being hypocrites, and they usually don’t stop after they’re called out for it, either. Instead, they might deny the accusation so they can “stay in a state of hypocrisy,” he said. Less commonly, hypocrites might “acknowledge the inconsistency and either undo it or vow to do better.”

For example, Stalder says, Conway could explain her comments away by saying this is just her job, or by saying everyone in her business says contradictory things sometimes, or by “distorting perceptions of [her] own behavior—‘I'm not actually being hypocritical—this is different.’”

According to Daniel Effron, a professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School, people underestimate how much they’ll be condemned for being a hypocrite. The condemnation is painful, and if it’s painful enough, people might try to resolve the inconsistency, either by, say, actually starting to recycle or by dropping the moralizing about separating plastics from cans.

Is it different for politicians, though, whose psychological makeup often seems to have more in common with that of convicted felons than with college students who take part in studies?

“Leadership positions make it more difficult to practice what you preach, because you may have to balance competing moral values,” Effron said, diplomatically.

Ultimately, an individual’s personality determines how much they are bothered by their own hypocrisy. One especially important factor is self-complexity, a psychological measure of the number of different “roles” that make up a person. Are you a spouse, mother, sister, and employee? Or just an employee? People who are lower in self-complexity have have fewer self-perceived roles, and their defining qualities in those roles are pretty similar—they might be a serious wife, for example, and a serious boss. These individuals tend to take criticism more to heart. They see negative feedback in any one sphere as a reflection on their whole self, as opposed to a just a small part of themselves.

In a 2010 study, Allen McConnell, of Miami University, and Christina Brown, of Saint Louis University, asked college students to write about how much they valued study skills, then to describe all the times they slacked off. When the hypocrisy was pointed out, the students who were lower in self-complexity were more likely to change their attitudes to match their behavior: They acknowledged studying was not very important, after all. “Because they view themselves in a more limited way, the sting of hypocrisy is more painful and therefore they're more motivated to get rid of it by being consistent,” Brown said.

Meanwhile, those with a lot of self-complexity doubled down on their attitudes about the importance of studying, even when the evidence of their own studying failures was laid bare.

Politicians are always talking about their families and their past lives as small-business owners or stewards of the community. In other words, they at least portray a lot of self-complexity. So maybe when they’re called out for a contradiction in public, they can easily brush it off: After all, it’s only their public face that’s talking.