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Not to be confused with Hippocrates, Hypocorism, or Hypocrisy (band).

Hypocrisy is the claim or pretense of holding beliefs, feelings, standards, qualities, opinions, behaviors, virtues, motivations, or other characteristics that one does not in actual fact hold. It is the practice of engaging in the same behavior or activity for which one criticizes another.[1][2] In moral psychology, it is the failure to follow one’s own expressed moral rules and principles.[3]

Recent studies in psychology have identified the evolutionary bases and the mental mechanisms of hypocrisy, tracing its roots to adaptations that serve contradictory functions in the human brain, and to cognitive biases and distortions that predispose humans to readily perceive and condemn faults in others, while failing to perceive and condemn faults of their own.


The word hypocrisy comes from the Greek ὑπόκρισις (hypokrisis), which means "jealous", "play-acting", "acting out", "coward" or "dissembling".[4] The word hypocrite is from the Greek word ὑποκρίτης (hypokritēs), the agentive noun associated with υποκρίνομαι (hypokrinomai κρίση, "judgment" »κριτική (kritiki), "critics") presumably because the performance of a dramatic text by an actor was to involve a degree of interpretation, or assessment.

Alternatively, the word is an amalgam of the Greek prefix hypo-, meaning "under", and the verb krinein, meaning "to sift or decide". Thus the original meaning implied a deficiency in the ability to sift or decide. This deficiency, as it pertains to one's own beliefs and feelings, informs the word's contemporary meaning.[5]

Whereas hypokrisis applied to any sort of public performance (including the art of rhetoric), hypokrites was a technical term for a stage actor and was not considered an appropriate role for a public figure. In Athens in the 4th century BC, for example, the great orator Demosthenes ridiculed his rival Aeschines, who had been a successful actor before taking up politics, as a hypocrites whose skill at impersonating characters on stage made him an untrustworthy politician. This negative view of the hypokrites, perhaps combined with the Roman disdain for actors, later shaded into the originally neutral hypokrisis. It is this later sense of hypokrisis as "play-acting", i.e., the assumption of a counterfeit persona, that gives the modern word hypocrisy its negative connotation.

Evolutionary bases[edit]

An optical illusion. Square A is exactly the same shade of grey as Square B, if ignoring certain rules of 3D projections. (See Checker shadow illusion.)

The human brain evolved adaptations and modules in response to widely varied selection pressures. These adaptations occurred over vast stretches of time; they were not coordinated. Hence they do not necessarily work in a coordinated manner in humans today. This explains perceptual – as well as cognitive – illusions.

The mental processes that enable one module to insist that Square A in this image is darker than Square B (perceptual modules notwithstanding), also enable one's moral modules to condemn infidelity while mating modules induce one to commit it.[6]

Power magnifies these effects. People in power are more likely to commit infidelity[7] and to condemn immorality.[8]

Psychology of hypocrisy[edit]

Hypocrisy has long been of interest to psychologists. Pioneer C. G. Jung attributed it to those who are not aware of the dark or shadow-side of their nature.[9] Recent studies have focused on mental characteristics and mechanisms to better understand hypocrisy.

Preference for the effortless[edit]

Niccolò Machiavelli noted that "the mass of mankind accept what seems as what is; nay, are often touched more nearly by appearances than by realities".[10] Natural selection works by the principle of survival of the fittest, and several researchers have shown that humans evolved to play the game of life in a Machiavellian way.[11] The best way to cultivate a reputation for fairness is to really be fair. But since it is much harder to be fair than to seem fair, and since laziness is built deep into human nature,[12] humans more often choose appearance over reality.[13]


"So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do."[14] Benjamin Franklin's observation has been confirmed by recent studies in self-deception.[15] In everyday reasoning, humans do little to get real evidence when taking positions or making decisions, and do even less to get evidence for opposing positions. Instead, they tend to fabricate "pseudo-evidence"[16] – often after the decision had already been made (“post hoc fabrication”).[17]

Humans take a position, look for evidence that supports it, then, if they find some evidence – enough so that the position "makes sense" – they stop thinking altogether (the “makes-sense stopping rule”).[18] And, when pressed to produce real evidence, they tend to seek and interpret “evidence” that confirms what they already believe (the "confirmation bias").[19]

Moreover, humans tend to think highly of themselves, highlighting strengths and achievements, and overlooking weakness and failures (the “self-serving bias”). This is particularly true of Americans and Europeans: when asked to rate themselves on virtues, skills, or other desirable traits (including ethics, intelligence, driving ability, and sexual skills), a large majority say they are above average.[20] Power and privilege magnify the distortion: 94% of college professors think that they do above average work.[21] This effect is weaker in Asian countries and in other cultures which value the group more highly than the self.[22]


Robert Wright wrote that "Human beings are a species splendid in their array of moral equipment, tragic in their propensity to misuse it, and pathetic in their constitutional ignorance of the misuse."[23] Humans are very good at challenging the beliefs of other people, but when it comes to their own beliefs, they tend to protect them, not challenge them.[24] A consistent finding of psychological research is that humans are fairly accurate in their perceptions of others, but generally inaccurate in their perceptions of themselves.[25] Humans tend to judge others by their behavior, but think they have special information about themselves – that they know what they are "really like" inside – and thus effortlessly find ways to explain away selfish acts, and maintain the illusion that they are better than others.[26]

The myth of pure evil[edit]

This distortion – hypocrisy in its most destructive form – is characterized by the belief that (1) evil is the intentional and gratuitous infliction of harm for its own sake, (2) perpetrated by villains who are malevolent to the core, (3) inflicted on victims who are innocent and good.[27] Psychologists call this a myth because believing in this fiction often blinds one to the reality that evil is in fact perpetrated mainly by ordinary people, who respond to perceived harms, including “provocations” by their victims, in ways they feel are reasonable and just.[28] Evil is not rare – it is commonplace, banal.[29] And all humans are capable of evil acts. Psychologists like Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker maintain that most if not all the major atrocities in human history were carried out by ordinary people who believed that they were good, that they were innocent victims – that they had God on their side – and that their enemies were pure evil.[30]

Alleviating hypocrisy[edit]

Hypocrisy is one of the most difficult human conditions to correct – mainly because those with the problem are not aware of it. “We are so skilled at putting on a show of virtue that we fool even ourselves,” writes moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt. “Enlightenment and wisdom require us all to take the logs out of our own eyes, and escape from our ceaseless, petty, and divisive moralism.”[31] In his books The Happiness Hypothesis and The Righteous Mind, Haidt recommends these measures:

Benefits of hypocrisy[edit]

Although there are many negatives to hypocrisy, various studies have shown that there can be benefits from inducing hypocrisy. A 2004 report stated that smoking amongst college students decreases when hypocrisy was induced.[39] Furthermore, another study has stated that condom use increases amongst college students when hypocrisy is induced.[40]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wiktionary:Hypocrisy
  2. ^ Hypocrisy is not simply failing to practice those virtues that one preaches. Samuel Johnson made this point when he wrote about the misuse of the charge of "hypocrisy" in Rambler No. 14: "Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself." Thus, an alcoholic's advocating temperance, for example, would not be considered an act of hypocrisy as long as the alcoholic made no pretense of sobriety.Rambler 14, P. 145. In Chalmers, Alexander: Full text of "The British essayists : with prefaces, historical and biographical" Retrieved 2009-04-15.
  3. ^ Lammers, J., Stapel, D. A., & Galinsky, A. D. (January 01, 2010). Power increases hypocrisy: moralizing in reasoning, immorality in behavior. Psychological Science, 21, 5, 737.
  4. ^ Pocket Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary, ed Morwood and Taylor, OUP 2002
  5. ^ "Online Etymology Dictionary: "hypocrisy"". Etymonline.com. Retrieved 2013-03-28. 
  6. ^ Kurzban, R. (2010). Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite: Evolution and the modular mind. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
  7. ^ Lammers, J., Stoker, J. I., Jordan, J., Pollmann, M., & Stapel, D. A. (January 01, 2011). Power increases infidelity among men and women. Psychological Science, 22, 9, 1191-7.
  8. ^ Lammers, J., Stapel, D. A., & Galinsky, A. D. (January 01, 2010). Power increases hypocrisy: moralizing in reasoning, immorality in behavior. Psychological Science, 21, 5, 737-44.
  9. ^ Every individual needs revolution, inner division, overthrow of the existing order, and renewal, but not by forcing them upon his neighbors under the hypocritical cloak of Christian love or the sense of social responsibility or any of the other beautiful euphemisms for unconscious urges to personal power (Jung, 1966:5). It is under all circumstances an advantage to be in full possession of one's personality, otherwise the repressed elements will only crop up as a hindrance elsewhere, not just at some unimportant point, but at the very spot where we are most sensitive. If people can be educated to see the shadow-side of their nature clearly, it may be hoped that they will also learn to understand and love their fellow men better. A little less hypocrisy and a little more self-knowledge can only have good results in respect for our neighbor; for we are all too prone to transfer to our fellows the injustice and violence we inflict upon our own natures (Jung, 1966:par. 28). In New Paths in Psychology (1916) Jung pointedly referred to the "hypocritical pretenses of man". Dream-analysis above all else mercilessly uncovers the lying morality and hypocritical pretences of man, showing him, for once, the other side of his character in the most vivid light (Jung, 1966:par. 437). Jung omitted this characterization from his later essay On the Psychology of the Unconscious (1943), which developed out of the former.
  10. ^ Machiavelli, N. (2004), Book 1 Ch 25. Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius. Project Gutenberg.
  11. ^ Byrne, R. W., & Whiten, A. (1988). Machiavellian intelligence: Social expertise and the evolution of intellect in monkeys, apes, and humans. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  12. ^ Kahneman, D. (2011), p. 35. Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  13. ^ Haidt, J. (2006), p. 61. The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York: Basic Books. (pdf)
  14. ^ Franklin, B. (1771), p. 18. The autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Ushistory.org
  15. ^ von, H. W., & Trivers, R. (January 01, 2011). The evolution and psychology of self-deception. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34, 1, 1-16. (pdf)
  16. ^ Kuhn, D. (1991). The skills of argument. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  17. ^ Haidt, J., Bjorklund, F., & Murphy, S. (n.d.). Moral dumbfounding: When intuition finds no reason. (Unpublished manuscript, University of Virginia).
  18. ^ Perkins, D. N., Farady, M., & Bushey, B. In Voss, J. F., Perkins, D. N., & Segal, J. W. (1991). Informal reasoning and education. Hillsdale, N.J: L. Erlbaum Associates.
  19. ^ Wason, P. C. (1960-01-01). On the Failure to Eliminate Hypotheses in a Conceptual Task. Quarterly journal of experimental psychology, 12, 129.
  20. ^ Alicke, Mark D.; Klotz, M. L.; Breitenbecher, David L.; Yurak, Tricia J.; Vredenburg, Debbie S. Personal contact, individuation, and the better-than-average effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 68(5), May 1995, 804-825.
  21. ^ Cross, K. P. (January 01, 1977). Not Can, But Will College Teaching Be Improved?. New Directions for Higher Education, 17, 1-15.
  22. ^ Heine, S. J. (1999-08-01). Culture, self-discrepancies, and self-satisfaction. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 25(8), 915.
  23. ^ Wright, R. (1995). The moral animal: Evolutionary psychology and everyday life. New York: Vintage Books.
  24. ^ Shaw, V. (May 01, 1996). The Cognitive Processes in Informal Reasoning. Thinking & Reasoning, 2, 1, 51-80.
  25. ^ Haidt, J. (2006), p. 66. The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York: Basic Books (pdf)
  26. ^ Epley, N. (2000-12-01). Feeling "Holier Than Thou". Journal of personality and social psychology, 79(6), 861-875.
  27. ^ Baumeister, R. F. (2001). Evil: Inside human violence and cruelty. New York: Owl Books.
  28. ^ Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. New York: Viking.
  29. ^ Arendt, H. (1963). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil. New York: Viking Press.
  30. ^ Haidt, J. (2006), p. 76. The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York: Basic Books (pdf)
  31. ^ Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. London: Allen Lane.
  32. ^ It is naïve in the sense of "lacking understanding, sophistication, and critical judgment". It is not naïve in the sense of "guileless", as in a child with naïve charm. It is the opposite of that. It is insidious. Ross, L., & Ward, A. (1996). Naive realism in everyday life: Implications for social conflict and misunderstanding. In T. Brown, E. S. Reed & E. Turiel (Eds.), Values and knowledge (pp. 103–135). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  33. ^ Haidt, J. (2006), p. 71. The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York: Basic Books (pdf)
  34. ^ Think of a recent interpersonal conflict with someone you care about, and then find one way in which your behavior was less than exemplary. Maybe you did something insensitive (even if you had the right to do it), or hurtful (even if you meant well), or inconsistent with your principles (even though you can justify the inconsistency). If you're not used to finding fault in yourself, you are likely to find excuses for your behavior, and to blame others – so catch yourself doing that. You're on a mission to find at least one thing that you did wrong. And when you do find that one thing, you may feel your anger soften, even see some merit on the other side. You are likely to be rewarded with a flash of pleasure, and a hint of pride. That is the pleasure of taking responsibility for your own behavior. It is the feeling of honor. Haidt, J. (2006), p. 71. The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York: Basic Books (pdf)
  35. ^ Kahneman, D. (2011), p. 1. Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  36. ^ Szalavitz, M. Jan. 11, 2012. Q&A: Jon Kabat-Zinn Talks About Bringing Mindfulness Meditation to Medicine. Time Inc.
  37. ^ e.g Kabat-Zinn, J..Suggestions for Daily Practice (pdf)
  38. ^ Kabat-Zinn, J.. Cultivating Mindfulness. (pdf)
  39. ^ Simmons, V. N., Webb, M. S., & Brandon, T. H. (2004). College-student smoking: An initial test of an experiential dissonance-enhancing intervention. Addictive behaviors, 29(6), 1129-1136.
  40. ^ 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(1), 116-128.


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