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.