Are You a Hypocrite? Good!
Being reminded of your own hypocrisy can help you change your behavior.
Posted June 11, 2015
Getting people to change their behavior is not easy. Governments allocate substantial resources to get people to change their attitudes and behaviors with respect to things like living a healthier lifestyle or acting in a more environmentally friendly way. In many cases, these efforts are unsuccessful, as individuals are often resistant to direct attempts to change their behavior. In the past couple of decades, social psychologists have developed a series of innovative strategies designed to help people consider for themselves the need to change their attitudes and behavior. Here, we want to introduce one particularly fascinating strategy – getting people to think about whether they are hypocritical.
When people don’t practice what they preach, they are normally labeled as “hypocrites.” We often think of hypocrisy as saying one thing but doing another, and we like to feel that we are consistent in what we say and what we do. This makes it potentially distressing to recognize our own hypocrisy, and seeing our own inconsistency might motivate us to change our attitudes and/or our behavior. This is an important question – can hypocrisy elicit change? Of course, the best way to address this question is to review evidence testing whether making people feel hypocritical has powerful effects on attitudes and behavior.
The empirical study of hypocrisy is quite young. It received a kickstart from a provocative study conducted 20 years ago, by Jeff Stone and his colleagues (1994). They asked a group of college students to make a videotaped speech arguing that condoms should be used every time people have sex. After making this speech, participants were asked to think about times when they had not used a condom. They were then given money as payment and subsequently offered the chance to buy condoms (for 10 cents each). It was found that participants who had made a public commitment about their positive attitude toward safe sex and then listed their hypocritical failures to engage in safe sex purchased more condoms than participants in other, control conditions. (These control conditions included participants who had merely made the videotaped speech or simply listed their past failures to act). In sum, people who were led to see their own hypocrisy changed their behavior, as a result of not wanting to feel inconsistent.
The benefits of making people feel hypocritical have been replicated across a variety of behaviors, including discrimination (Son Hing et al., 2002), recycling (Fried & Aronson, 1995), water conservation (Dickerson, Thibodeau, Aronson, & Miller, 1992), cigarette smoking (Peterson, Haynes, & Olson, 2008), and other health-related domains (see Stone & Focella, 2011, for a review). Scientists have also considered factors that influence when hypocrisy is more or less likely to elicit attitude or behavior change. For example, the effects of hypocrisy are more powerful among people with high self-esteem (Peterson et al., 2008). More recently, research has shown that witnessing the hypocrisy of a member of one’s ingroup can affect a person’s own attitudes and behavior (Gaffney, Hogg, Cooper, & Stone, 2012).
These findings have a number of important implications. What is fascinating about the hypocrisy paradigm is that participants convince themselves about the need to change their behavior. Hypocrisy is not about others trying to convince us of the need to change our attitudes or behaviors. Techniques that make salient hypocrisy merely draw people’s attention to their own standards for their own actions, enabling them to draw the conclusions they see fit.
Dickerson, C., Thibodeau, R., Aronson, E., & Miller, D. (1992). Using cognitive dissonance to encourage water conservation. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 22, 841-854.
Fried, C. B., & Aronson, E. (1995). Hypocrisy, misattribution, and dissonance reduction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 925-933.
Gaffney, A.M., Hogg, M.A., Cooper, J., & Stone, J. (2012). Witness to hypocrisy: Reacting to ingroup hypocrites in the presence of others. Social Influence, 7, 98-112.
Peterson, A. A., Haynes, G. A., & Olson, J. M. (2008). Self-esteem differences in the effects of hypocrisy induction on behavioral intentions in the health domain. Journal of Personality, 76, 305-322.
Son Hing, L. S., Li, W., & Zanna, M. P. (2002). Inducing hypocrisy to reduce prejudicial responses among aversive racists. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 71-78.
Stone, J., Aronson, E., Crain, A. L., Winslow, M. P., & Fried, C. B. (1994). Inducing hypocrisy as a means of encouraging young adults to use condoms. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20, 116-128.