Do You Know A Hypocrite?

Recognizing hypocrisy can lead to change.

Posted Nov 05, 2016

Krystine I. Batcho
Source: Krystine I. Batcho

How do you feel when someone says:  “Do as I say, not as I do“? 

Accusations of hypocrisy can have serious consequences.  Chances are good that when you perceive a person to be a hypocrite, you devalue him or her and his or her message. A person deemed a hypocrite might be ignored, disliked, resented or opposed.  Regardless of its importance or value, their message might be disregarded or become tainted by the untrustworthiness of the source.

How do we arrive at the judgment that someone is a hypocrite?   Dictionaries define hypocrisy as pretending to be what one is not or to believe what one does not, or to have a desirable or publicly approved attitude that one does not really possess.  At the heart of the understanding of hypocrisy is the inconsistency between what is and what is pretended to be.  In other words, behavior or character is viewed as hypocritical when it is believed to be fake or phony.  Negative reactions to hypocrisy stem from our inherent desire for, even need for, authenticity.  Meaningful relationships require interacting with a “real” person, not with the person that masks the actual self.  We are happy to interact with fictional people in our imaginative fantasy life of daydreams, theater, film and literature.  But in our everyday real lives we need to know whom we are trusting and interacting with.  If we believe someone genuinely works in the best interests of children, we might trust them to care for our child, whereas hypocrisy threatens our child’s wellbeing if our trust is betrayed.

Hypocrisy can inflict considerable harm and threaten the core of meaningful personal interactions.  If hypocrisy is uncovered, being duped is a two-edged sword.  We can feel angry at the one who deceived us and angry at ourselves for falling for the deception.  We might wonder how our judgment could have been so wrong and our trust so misplaced.  Worse yet, it can make us question whom we can trust in the future.  The potential victims of hypocrisy include not only us and all who had been deceived, but also authentic people who will be mistrusted unfairly.

The accusation that someone is a hypocrite, then, is serious and can be very hurtful.  Who qualifies as being a hypocrite?  Research suggests that people interpret four types of behavior as hypocritical.

  • A person who behaves differently than how they instruct others to act might be viewed as a hypocrite.  If called on their discrepant behavior, the accused often responses, “Do as I say, not as I do.”
  • The “holier than thou” hypocrite falsely claims a desirable quality or character.
  • Blaming others for one’s own fault reflects the idiom “one who lives in a glass house shouldn’t throw stones.” 
  • Creating the impression of being or doing more than is true gains a hypocrite more credit or praise than deserved.  

Research suggests that behavior is more likely to be judged hypocritical if the deception is intentional, the person has a sense of superiority, the contradictory behavior is serious, and the person is a repeat offender. 

You might be quick to identify hypocrisy in others, but are you as aware of your own inconsistencies?  Research suggests that people are reluctant to consider their own behavior to be hypocritical.  People are more critical of others when giving examples of someone who was a hypocrite and more self-affirming when recalling an example of their own hypocritical behavior or when someone had called them a hypocrite.  It is easier to recognize contradictions between words and actions in another than in yourself.  We can make excuses for our own inconsistencies, but not for others, without knowing their inner motives, thoughts or feelings.

Acknowledging our own hypocrisy can be painful.  In serious matters, we can feel guilt and shame about our shortcomings.  But it can also be an opportunity for personal growth.  A sharp reminder of who we think we are and want to be can motivate us to return to our authentic self.  Research has shown that threats to the integrity of our self-concept can inspire positive behavioral change.

So, the next time you accuse someone of being a hypocrite, scrutinize your own faithfulness to who you want to be.  If you come up a bit short, be thankful for the opportunity to grow.

Further reading

Alicke, M., Gordon, E., & Rose, D.  (2013).  Hypocrisy:  What counts?  Philosophical Psychology , 26, 673-701.

Fointiat, V.  (2004).  “I know what I have to do, but . . . “  When hypocrisy leads to behavioral change.  Social Behavior and Personality, 32, 741-746.

Hale, W. J., & Pillow, D. R.  (2015).  Asymmetries in perceptions of self and others’ hypocrisy:  Rethinking the meaning and perception of the construct.  European Journal of Social Psychology, 45, 88-98.

Sénémeaud, C., Mange, J., Fointiat, V., & Somat, A.  (2014).  Being hypocritical disturbs some people more than others:  How individual differences in preference for consistency moderate the behavioral effects of the induced-hypocrisy paradigm.  Social Influence, 9, 133-148.

Yousaf, O., & Gobet, F.  (2013).  The emotional and attitudinal consequences of religious hypocrisy:  Experimental evidence using a cognitive dissonance paradigm.  The Journal of Social Psychology, 153, 667-686.