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Field Guide to the Goody Two-Shoes

Why tattletales are so annoying.

Latin Name: Nonpracticus Preachum

Notable Characteristics: Complains to the boss about a chronically late coworker while using the company's fitness policy to justify long lunches at the gym. Badmouths a friend for getting divorced without "trying hard enough" but votes for his own political party's philandering candidate. Critically eyeballs your slice and soda at lunch, then orders a double-cheese meat-lover when he's home alone.

Songs & Calls: "Do as I say, not as I do." "I thought we could only wear jeans on casual Friday." "I'm telling!"

Achieving perfection is tricky—unless you're a Goody Two-shoes, in which case it's actually pretty easy. Just ask one.

Self-righteous, judgmental, and usually hypocritical, the Goody Two-shoes makes a point of holding the rest of us to impossible standards even as she blunders through life wearing a smug mask of moral superiority. "Goody Two-shoes are highly critical of others, but not of themselves," says PT blogger and Smart Thinking author Art Markman. Looking to raise their self-esteem and inflate their status within a group, "they like to feel that they make others look up to them by taking on the role of moral authority."

Judge Goody

"We are a loose culture, so it's generally fine if someone wants to be a little different," says Markman. But the Goody Two-shoes rejects the live-and-let-live attitude, revealing her own rigidity instead.

Someone so highly conscientious will take rules very seriously. Combine that with low agreeableness and you have a person who isn't afraid to judge others—loudly and often. "Some people want to be the social policeman," says Markman.

Sure, we all have good reason to judge others. But we don't all stalk and scold our neighbor the one time he fails to pick up after his Labradoodle.

For a Goody Two-shoes, judging is not just an expression of values—it's a social power grab. "They want to be valued by the group and gain social capital," says David DeSteno, a social psychologist at Northeastern University, "so they judge others to enforce the group's norms."

Unfortunately, Goody Two-shoes also tend to engage in the very behaviors they criticize.

You Practice, I'll Preach

We are harsher judges of others than of ourselves, research shows, because we have access to our own inner feelings but only to the actions of others. "If we know we really do mean to exercise next week or quit smoking or stop visiting porn sites," we can give ourselves credit for our good intentions, says Mark Alicke, a psychologist at Ohio University. "But when other people are engaging in those behaviors, their behavior is all we know."

A Goody Two-shoes will judge herself by a more flexible standard than others, leading to those ickiest of personality traits: hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

"When people give themselves credit for intentions but judge others based on action, a double standard can exist," explains Princeton researcher Emily Pronin.

Still, our dislike of hypocrisy is pretty strong, so why can't the Goody Two- shoes stop himself? Markman says that the self-righteous dog poop vigilante and his brethren probably don't even recognize their own hypocrisy, to say nothing of their disagreeableness. "They tend to view their own actions abstractly while judging others' behavior very specifically."

No Good Do-Gooder

As much as we loathe hypocrites, we may dislike the self-righteous even more. Any person who presents himself as morally unimpeachable is making an "implicit indictment" of everyone else that is "irksome to the mainstream," finds a recent study in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

"People are all too quick to attribute negative characteristics to anyone who claims to have virtuous motives," says study author Julia Minson, a researcher at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. "When someone claims the moral high ground, it makes everyone else around them feel judged." The result? We can't help but try to knock the Goody Two-shoes off her high horse, to level the playing field.

In fact, the phrase "Goody Two-shoes" is thought to come from an 18th-century children's story in which a one-shoed orphan is finally given a complete pair. She becomes an annoyingly perfect citizen—well-behaved, generous, and kind—and believes her eventual good fortune is a reward for her virtue. Blech. No wonder the phrase turned cynical.

CASE STUDY: The Tattletale (Nonpracticus preachum snitchum)

The coworker who calls attention to your jeans in front of the boss, the book clubber who outs you for relying on CliffsNotes—the tattletale, says Markman, is a package of extraversion, anxiety, and competitiveness all rolled up into one annoying little snitch.

Why do they do it? "Those who tattle are not doing it just to be judgmental. They are also calling attention to themselves as a moral judge in a community or group," he says. Tattletales relish being the center of attention, especially when it provides an opportunity to advertise how much better they are than you.

Indeed, sometimes it's a moral imperative to expose someone for breaking the rules (hello, Penn State), but tattling on others for little things is probably the result of low self-esteem, not unshakeable principles, says Markman.

"You have to feel insecure about a social situation to build up yourself at someone else's expense," he observes.

CASE STUDY: The Prig With a Past (Nonpracticus preachum amnesium)

Everyone loved your hard-partying college roommate, known for drinking through a funnel and hitting on Dave Matthews (in that order). But now that she's a congresswoman, wife, and mother, any reference to her debauched past is taboo. What gives?

First of all, situations—and college is one—can be huge influences on our behavior. Past recklessness can be part of the path that led to the person you are today. But if you believe that your character is unchangeable and your past self is horrible, says Markman, "you may want to pretend that person never existed."

And some people go even further. "A significant number of people become activists against the thing from their past that is troubling them," says Markman. "It's a mechanism to maintain reasonable self-esteem in the context of having an element you are ashamed of."