The Bias and Embarrassment of Hypocrisy
How do we deal with getting caught in inconsistency?
Posted October 3, 2018
Humans and society are too complex to expect perfect consistency from anyone. It’s normal to be inconsistent to at least some degree, or to occasionally act like someone you’re not.
You can be pro-environment and occasionally throw aluminum cans in the garbage, be anti-smoking and occasionally take a drag, profess love for your partner and have an affair, even be pro-life and get an abortion (or pressure your mistress to get one). More commonly, you may criticize others for a behavior you are guilty of.
Despite how common hypocrisy is, most of us feel embarrassed when caught in an inconsistency. We feel we have to explain ourselves to save face. Politicians and other public figures often deny, rationalize, or deflect. Some even resign (Seyler, 2017).
There is good reason to be embarrassed. Behaving hypocritically can be perceived to show a lack of fairness, self-awareness, intelligence, or even morality. Not that all hypocrisies are equally embarrassing.
Even if hypocritical politicians think they’re making politically smart decisions, it’s still challenging to admit being a “hypocrite.” They may publicly deny the label and privately claim that every politician has to do hypocritical things.
Indeed, research has shown the power of the everybody-does-it defense. It helps us feel better after being caught cheating in school, cheating on taxes, in underage drinking, and in other questionable behaviors. Even the current nominee to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, has claimed that “almost everyone” drank in high school as he did (Chiu, 2018). In general, men seem more comfortable using this defense (Stalder, 2010).
But even if everyone does something, that doesn’t automatically make it acceptable. To think that it does is part of the naturalistic fallacy or the is-ought fallacy. Just because most people behave in some way doesn’t mean we ought to. Or in the words of the proverbial parent-of-a-teen, if all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?
But I’m not writing this post to tell you how you ought to behave; people have tough decisions to make every day. I’m writing to point out some of the biases behind hypocrisy. They include the confirmation bias, the bias blind spot, and especially the actor-observer bias. Common sayings to describe these biases include turning a blind eye, having double standards, the pot calling the kettle black, and not practicing what you preach.
And once caught, we usually deal with the embarrassment in biased if not deceitful ways. In addition to denial and rationalization, we may lash out at the accuser in an ad hominem attack. If we’re caught changing our position for less-than-noble reasons, we can say we’ve "evolved.” It’s a pleasant-sounding alternative to being a flip-flopper (Leibovich, 2015).
If we criticize others for something we are guilty of, we may claim that our situation is different, even it’s mostly the same.
A recent claim of political hypocrisy and double standards lies in the Republicans’ reaction to President Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland versus President Trump’s nomination of Kavanaugh. The former was blocked for several months because it was an election year, whereas the latter is being pushed through just a month before an election (Begala, 2018).
Of course, there are differences between those two events, which Republicans may be justified in citing. But part of rationalization is to overlook the similarities. And Democrats are not immune. They were not always as anti-Russia as they are today (Kirchick, 2017).
There are too many political examples to ever list them all.
Whoever is in the hot seat, this post is also about how to deal with hypocrisy and embarrassment in less biased ways. Aside from just trying to avoid the basics like denial and rationalization and attacking the accuser, here are some unbiased alternatives to try (not that they are easy).
[Note: Some of us are truly unembarrassed by our hypocrisy or have truly legitimate reasons for our inconsistency. The suggestions below may be less useful to such individuals. But be careful assuming your reasons are truly legitimate: Most people think they are even when they’re not.]
1. Take back your inconsistent behavior or words if you can.
If you threw an aluminum can in the garbage, go back in there and get it and then find a recycling bin. If you criticized someone for something you do or for something they were not actually guilty of, take back the criticism. Try “on second thought” or “upon further reflection.” You can even slow down a Supreme Court nomination process.
2. Acknowledge what you did and vow to do better (and even do better).
If the garbage has already been taken away, promise to find a recycle bin the next time. If you failed to follow your own New Year’s resolution within days of New Year’s, remind yourself there are still several more months to go.
3. Admit being wrong or apologize.
This might be the toughest, but there are phrases that might help, like how you’re a “big enough person” to admit when you’re wrong, or how it’s time to “eat crow.” CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin said he had to eat crow after criticizing Senator Jeff Flake who supported Kavanaugh's nomination in committee, but later acted to ensure an FBI investigation (Al-Sibai, 2018).
4. Find a way to move on.
Whether or not you publicly admit anything or take anything back, the negative emotion from your hypocrisy can linger. It won’t last as long as most of us think, but in the meantime, you can try to distract yourself (ideally without excessive use of drugs or alcohol). Or find ways to self-affirm. Think of your strengths or hang out with people who like you.
You can also tell yourself that everyone makes mistakes. It’s true, even if it’s unlikely that everyone did the thing you’re trying to move on from. And no one is perfectly consistent. Many people may even be less consistent than you.
Some famous quotes might also help. For example, Alexander Pope said, “A man should never be ashamed to own that he has been in the wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday” (Stalder, 2018).
It is normal to be inconsistent in the complex lives most of us lead. How we respond when made aware of it seems more important. Although biased responses are normal, we can also try to acknowledge, and take, responsibility.
Noor Al-Sibai, “CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin ‘Eats Crow’ on Jeff Flake Criticisms: ‘I Was Wrong—He Changed History,’” Raw Story, September 28, 2018, https://www.rawstory.com/2018/09/cnns-jeffrey-toobin-eats-crow-jeff-fla….
Paul Begala, “Begala: Hypocrisy, Thy Name Is GOP,” CNN, September 19, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/09/19/opinions/gop-cant-handle-the-truth-on-ka….
Allyson Chiu, “Brett Kavanaugh Likes Beer, But Not Questions about His Drinking Habits,” Washington Post, September 28, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/09/28/brett-kav….
James Kirchick, “Why It’s Hard to Take Democrats Seriously on Russia,” Politico, July 24, 2017, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/07/24/why-its-hard-to-take….
Mark Leibovich, “You and I Change Our Minds. Politicians ‘Evolve,’" New York Times, March 10, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/magazine/you-and-i-change-our-minds-….
Matt Seyler, “Anti-Abortion Rep. Tim Murphy Resigns after Report He Asked Lover to End Pregnancy,” ABC News, October 5, 2017, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/anti-abortion-rep-tim-murphy-asked-mist….
Daniel R. Stalder, The Power of Context: How to Manage Our Bias and Improve Our Understanding of Others (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2018).
Daniel R. Stalder, “The Power of Proverbs: Dissonance Reduction through Common Sayings,” Current Research in Social Psychology 15 (2010): 72–81.