No one likes a hypocrite, that’s for sure. But a new interesting study has shown that we don’t dislike hypocrites because they do stuff they frown upon, but rather because they lie about it. When people admit to doing things they disapprove of — basically, admit being hypocrites — we don’t really dislike them as much.

Image credits: KAZVorpal / Flickr

When it comes to hypocrisy, it’s all about reputation trading and inconsistency.

“People dislike hypocrites because they unfairly use condemnation to gain reputational benefits and appear virtuous at the expense of those who they are condemning–when these reputational benefits are in fact undeserved,” explains psychological scientist Jillian Jordan of Yale University, first author on the research.

So when you’re being a hypocrite, you’re trying to steal some undeserved reputation. But when you admit to doing stuff you don’t like, you give up on that extra reputation. This partly explains what’s going on, but not fully. What Jordan found is that the inconsistency annoys us the most. The study aims to develop a new “theory of hypocrisy”:

“We propose that hypocrites are disliked because their condemnation sends a false signal about their personal conduct, deceptively suggesting that they behave morally. We show that verbal condemnation signals moral goodness and does so even more convincingly than directly stating that one behaves morally. We then demonstrate that people judge hypocrites negatively—even more negatively than people who directly make false statements about their morality Finally, we show that “honest” hypocrites—who avoid false signaling by admitting to committing the condemned transgression—are not perceived negatively even though their actions contradict their stated values. Critically, the same is not true of hypocrites who engage in false signaling but admit to unrelated transgressions . Together, our results support a false-signaling theory of hypocrisy.”

Coming clean helps

The study basically consists of several mini-studies. It involved 619 online participants who were presented with four scenarios regarding moral transgressions: a member of a track team using performance-enhancing drugs, a student cheating on a take-home chemistry exam, an employee failing to meet a deadline on a team project, and a member of a hiking club who engaged in infidelity. For each scenario, participants read a conversation involving the condemnation of the transgression. Researchers varied who the condemnation came from — either from the “target character” who was in the wrong or from someone else — as well as whether the scenario provided direct information about the target character’s own moral behavior. Participants then evaluated how likable and trustworthy the target character was.

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OK House, we got it. But you can be honest about lying.

Results showed that the character was judged more leniently when they came clean, but only when participants had no information about how the character actually behaved. This indicates that when we don’t have any direct information available to us, we interpret condemnation as a signal of moral behavior.

Another mini-study indicated that we hate hypocrites even more than liars, while perhaps the most interesting one showed just how willing we are to forgive hypocrites — if they come clean. “Honest hypocrites,” who admit to their behavior, are much more likely to be forgiven.

“The extent to which people forgive honest hypocrites was striking to us,” says Jordan. “These honest hypocrites are seen as no worse than people who commit the same transgressions but keep their mouths shut and refrain from judging others for doing the same — suggesting that the entirety of our dislike for hypocrites can be attributed to the fact that they falsely signal their virtue.”

So the takeaways are clear. For starters, we hate hypocrites because we feel duped — and we really don’t like being duped. More importantly, if you do something you’re not proud of and want to be forgiven, admit it. At the very least, you’ll earn some moral style points.

Journal Reference: Jillian J. Jordan, Roseanna Sommers, Paul Bloom, David G. Rand — Why Do We Hate Hypocrites? Evidence for a Theory of False Signaling.