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5 Ways to Spot the Hypocrites in Your Life

2. The people who most value looking good may also be most likely to live a lie.

The hypocrite is an intriguing creature:

  • An acquaintance turns you down for a charitable donation when you make a private request, and then lectures anyone who will listen about the importance of the cause.
  • Your partner insists on honesty between the two of you when it comes to finances, but then you hear from a third party about an expensive night on the town in which your partner picked up the entire tab.
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The 24-hour news cycle, and corresponding wall-to-wall coverage by the media, means that we’ve almost come to expect hypocrisy in public figures. A politician claims to adhere to fundamentalist religious beliefs, but then is caught in an adulterous scandal. Aging movie stars get on the bandwagon to fight ageism in Hollywood, but you see postings on Twitter drawing attention to the extensive work they’ve had done on their faces. It seems to be more and more infrequent that a well-known person’s life conforms to the beliefs he or she is credited with having.

The social psychology of topics like deception, cognitive dissonance (where attitudes and behavior conflict), person perception, and relationship quality all relate to hypocrisy. In fact, University of Southern California Professor Jesse Graham and colleagues (2015), citing earlier work, note that “that the entire field of social psychology could be called the science of moral hypocrisy” (p. 158). That’s a pretty strong statement, but the team convincingly provides evidence to can back it up.

The focus of the Graham et al. analysis is moral hypocrisy. Either consciously or not, people deceptively claim to adhere to a set of principles, but do not act (or even necessarily think) in ways consistent with those principles. They call moral hypocrisy “The Construct with a Thousand Faces”—in other words, it comes in many forms. Their definition, to be precise, is to break from your own moral standard, whether you state it publicly or not.

Much of the research, the USC team believes, can fit into three categories—moral duplicity; moral double standards; and moral weakness.

  • Moral duplicity is what you probably think of when you define hypocrisy. It's when people falsely claim their motives are above reproach, but in fact they are not. For example, a coworker may sign a statement attesting that he has no outside conflict of interests with your company, but you know for a fact that he does. Of course, now you are faced with your own moral dilemma—whether to be loyal to your friend or be a whistleblower for your company.
  • In moral double standards, people are fairer with themselves for immoral acts than they are other people. You may become irate at a driver who doesn’t stop for you at a crosswalk. However, when you slip through a crosswalk because you’re in a hurry, you excuse your behavior because you were rushed.
  • In moral weakness, people’s behavior conflicts with their attitudes. For example, an individual signs a petition agreeing with the importance of promoting safe sex but then fails to use condoms. Or you may espouse the position that everyone should vote, but on voting day, never make it to the polls yourself.

To investigate the phenomenon of moral hypocrisy specifically, Graham and his colleagues asked three simple online questions to a large sample of Mechanical Turk users (people who receive payment to participate in online studies). Basically, the researchers wanted to know what people’s most important values are; what actions they had taken either consistent or inconsistent with those values; and what actions they had recently engaged in that made them feel guilty.

A majority in this study cited honesty, care, fairness, and loyalty as their most important values. They were most likely to violate their values of honesty and loyalty—they lied to their friends and loved ones—and also felt the most guilty about these two types of moral failing. Graham and his fellow researchers note that, although research on morality (such as moral dilemmas) tends to focus on abstract concepts, most people grapple with the issue on a much more immediate basis, such as whether to lie to a family member. Thus, morality becomes an interpersonal issue, not one that is just abstract and philosophical.

So we know which moral values people tend to violate, even if it makes them feel guilty. How, then, can you translate this into information you can use? The USC research boils down to these five keys:

  1. People who value morality and make it a part of their identity are less likely to be hypocritical.
  2. Hypocrites are likely to gain motivation from a desire to look good, more than an internal desire to satisfy personal goals.
  3. The dogmatic are less likely to be hypocrites than those who are more creative thinkers because “creative thinkers can use their creativity to concoct justifications for self–serving immoral behaviors” (p. 165).
  4. Narcissists, either by nature or as the result of fame, have a greater sense of entitlement and therefore are more likely to excuse themselves for their failings.
  5. People most affected by witnessing good acts (“moral beauty”) will feel a stronger desire to act in a moral way.

Being around hypocrites is certainly uncomfortable. As the Graham et al. research shows, you may not be able to change them. But by monitoring your own tendency to be morally duplicitous, you can at least maximize your ability to fulfill your values.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015


Graham, J., Meindl, P., Koleva, S., Iyer, R., & Johnson, K. M. (2015). When values and behavior conflict: Moral pluralism and intrapersonal moral hypocrisy. Social And Personality Psychology Compass, 9(3), 158-170. doi:10.1111/spc3.12158

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