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The Science of Hypocrisy

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The Science of Hypocrisy

Research seems to show human beings are wired to say one thing yet do another. Here is what you can do about it.

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“What, exactly, is the problem with hypocrisy?” A 2017 New York Times article asked this question. It continued: “When someone condemns the behavior of others, why do we find it so objectionable if we learn he engages in the same behavior himself?

“The answer may seem self-evident. Not practicing what you preach; lacking the willpower to live up to your own ideals; behaving in ways you obviously know are wrong—these are clear moral failings.”

Yet the answer has even more layers. The article cited research that people also dislike hypocrites because of their “outspoken moralizing falsely signals their own virtue.”

The study showed that the “use of moral proclamations falsely implies that [a person] behaves morally.” Conversely, those who are more honest about their flaws are viewed more favorably.

Experiments such as these show the human mind’s tendency toward hypocrisy and what conditions are needed for it to manifest itself. But the why behind this trait is difficult to pin down because it includes a tangled knot of cognitive and memory biases.

For example, sometimes we will simply overlook hypocrisy in others. The Guardian wrote that “people are far quicker to notice and call out hypocrisy when it goes against their own beliefs. A politician you oppose promotes family values but is caught having an affair? Hypocrite! Drum them out of office! But if it’s a politician you support? Gutter journalism! So he’s not perfect, give him another chance! There are more important issues to worry about etc.”

Hypocrisy has been on the minds of philosophers and thinkers for centuries. The word hypocrite comes from the Greek hypokrites, which means “answerer, actor on a stage, pretender.” Research over the last few decades has helped to show the human mind’s astonishing capacity for hypocrisy. Despite this, scientists are missing something else entirely…

Say One Thing, Do Another

An article in Medium recounted a 2001 study that “aimed to turn people into hypocrites in the lab.” The results showed how quickly people can abandon their moral ideals.

“Participants were to assign a set of tasks to themselves and an unknown second participant. One type of task was exciting and offered rewards while the other was neutral with no rewards. A coin placed next to the participants had a written instruction explaining that most people believed flipping the coin would be a fair way to distribute the tasks. Indeed, practically all of the participants agreed that flipping the coin to assign tasks would be the most moral thing.

“But when it came down to it, only half of them actually flipped the coin, with practically everybody in the non-coin-flipping half giving themselves the exciting tasks. Among the people who did flip the coin—which was labeled ‘self’ on one side and ‘other’ on the other—85% to 90% still managed to assign the exciting task to themselves.”

This was not some magic coin. The participants pretended the coin toss went to them. They lied.

Medium continued: “People wanted to look fair by using a coin to make their decision, but behind the scenes, they were just as selfish as the people who did not use the coin at all (most of whom had agreed using the coin would be the most fair but didn’t do it). It’s all a perfect example of moral hypocrisy at work.”

Here is the conclusion the article drew: “Essentially, we all want to act fairly until we are put on the spot and are facing our own personal consequences.”

Science’s Limit

Research such as this does reveal characteristics of the human mind. Yet scientists are just nibbling around the edges of what causes hypocrisy.

An article published by the American Psychological Association stated this: “People are capable of performing unambiguously immoral acts, but appear equipped with the psychological mechanisms to relieve themselves of responsibility.”

Put simply, people can know they are doing something wrong while their minds are “equipped” to give themselves a pass.

The study continued: “An equally unsettling, and perhaps more socially relevant, type of hypocrisy could be an interpersonal phenomenon whereby individuals’ evaluations of their own moral transgressions differ substantially from their evaluations of the same transgressions enacted by others.”

Again, put simply, people judge the missteps of others much more harshly than their own.

While it is helpful to know the natural proclivities of the human mind, not knowing exactly why makes doing anything about it incredibly difficult. A major reason the answer is blocked stems from institutions often called out for their hypocrisy: Christian churches. The Bible has much to say about human nature and hypocrisy. But insincere actions from religious leaders and adherents often sours onlookers to God’s Word.

This removes the Bible from the discussion, which is the leading text on what makes human beings tick.

Proverbs 21:2 confirms some of the studies already covered and is a great place to start: “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes: but the Lord ponders the hearts.”

Each individual will naturally make excuses for what he does—to the point that it seems like the right thing to do. This is true even if it hurts others.

Now read Jeremiah 17:9, which states, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Revised Standard Version).

Do not overcomplicate this verse. Our hearts are deceitful above all things. And we cannot understand them on our own. Truly, who can?

This Old Testament scripture reveals the limiting factor of scientific research into hypocrisy and human nature. Without God’s Word as a foundation, there is a ceiling to how much one can discover. Without God’s help, we cannot understand the human mind.

Left to our own devices, our hearts will deceive us. What we do will become “right” in our own eyes.

Power Corrupts

While scientific research cannot explain the why of hypocrisy, put next to the Bible, it can help us better understand human nature.

Have you ever wondered why power corrupts and the most prominent members of society are often found to be the most hypocritical? National Geographic reported on five experiments that aimed to do just that. They revealed that “powerful people are more likely to behave immorally but paradoxically less likely to tolerate immorality in other people.”

The researchers told 61 students at Tilburg University to recall a time when they felt powerful or powerless. The ones who thought of power were more prone to frown on cheating. Yet that same group was also more likely to cheat themselves. The “powerless” group was the opposite.

The studies presented a variety of psychological manipulation and moral dilemmas, but the results were always the same, the magazine reported. The ones who felt more powerful were also more hypocritical.

Note that the experiments “involved acts that are technically illegal but that many people take part in, such as speeding or tax-dodging. Their job was to say either whether they would be okay with doing it themselves, or whether they would think it acceptable if someone else did it.”

National Geographic summarized the findings: “It seems that power breeds a sense of entitlement, where people feel that they can take more than other people, but also dictate how others should behave. They can preach without the need to practice. But this hypocrisy hinges on the legitimacy of their power. Power corrupts, but it seems that only true power truly corrupts.”

The flip side of this was also true. “Powerless” groups had a sort of anti-hypocrisy. They were much harder on their own failings than those of others.

High-up Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy among leaders was rampant in the first century during the life of Jesus Christ. While He preached that all should avoid moral duplicity, His strongest words were directed at the leaders of the day.

In Matthew 15, the scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus why His disciples did not follow the traditions of the Jewish elders. His response was an even more pointed question: “Why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (vs. 3, RSV).

“For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die.’ But you say, ‘If any one tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is given to God, he need not honor his father’” (vs. 4-5).

Finally, verse 6: “So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God.”

Jesus then flat-out called the leaders hypocrites and quoted Isaiah—which includes God’s definition of a hypocrite.

Isaiah 29:13: “Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near Me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor Me, but have removed their heart far from Me, and their fear toward Me is taught by the precept of men.”

People can say they obey God and “draw near” to Him with their words—but their hearts are far removed.

In Luke 11:46 Jesus was again talking to the scribes and Pharisees as well as the lawyers. His words support the findings of the Tilburg University studies: “Woe unto you also, you lawyers! For you load men with burdens grievous to be borne, and you yourselves touch not the burdens with one of your fingers.”

Powerful people holding those under them to one strict standard while giving themselves a pass. There is nothing new under the sun!

Over and over, Jesus spoke against hypocrisy, often with the Pharisees being the example to avoid.

Note this from Matthew 23: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayer: therefore you shall receive the greater damnation” (vs. 14).

Making a show of morality—a pretense of righteousness—when forgetting to show care and concern for others was utterly abhorrent to Jesus.

Verse 23 states: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought you to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”

Now verses 27-28: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like unto whited sepulchers [white-washed tombs], which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.”

Not only does this aptly define moral hypocrisy—it also shows how much God hates this attitude.

Do not miss the point here. While those in power may exhibit more hypocrisy, it does not give everyone else a pass. Jesus even cautioned His disciples: “Beware you of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1).

Hypocrisy spreads like leaven in bread—it puffs up until it consumes its whole host. Similarly, it affects every person alive today.

While science does not provide concrete ways to battle hypocrisy in your own life, the Bible does! It clearly shows how to identify and root it out.

Bible as a Mirror

Given that we naturally give ourselves a pass regarding hypocritical behavior, we need help to see it in ourselves. Bible accounts bear this out.

Look at the example in the book of John, chapter 8. The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery to Jesus.

Verses 4-5 say, “Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what say You?”

Christ knew they were laying a trap for Him. His response helps show the power of recognizing your own immoral behavior. He stooped down and began to draw in the sand—likely writing the sins of these corrupt leaders.

Jesus then stood up and said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her”—before crouching down again to write in the dirt (vs. 7-8).

Notice the response in verse 9: “And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.”

We have already seen these leaders were huge hypocrites. Their consciences being pricked, they left.

Verses 10-11 close out the story: “When Jesus had lifted up Himself, and saw none but the woman, He said unto her, Woman, where are those your accusers? Has no man condemned you? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn you: go, and sin no more.”

Notice the words for the woman caught in adultery. She was not condemned, but Jesus said to “sin no more.” In other words, she was forgiven, but she needed to change her ways.

Another Bible example shows the level of self-deceit of which our minds are capable. We need help to recognize our hypocrisies. King David piled sin on top of sin when he committed adultery with Bathsheba, tried to cover up the resultant pregnancy, and then orchestrated the killing of her husband. Even then, David did not repent and ask for forgiveness.

At this point, the prophet Nathan came and told the king a story: “There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds: but the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter” (II Sam. 12:1-3).

“And there came a traveler unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him” (vs. 4).

When David heard this story, he was immensely angry with the rich man. He said in verse 5: “The man that has done this thing shall surely die.”

Nathan finally cut to the quick with the king: “You are that man!”

With that, David finally saw his wrongdoing and hypocrisy. He earnestly sought God’s mercy and forgiveness—Psalm 51 reveals his repentant attitude.

Yet anyone can be the same. We can see the flaws in others and miss obvious wrongdoing in our own lives. Because of this, we all need the Bible to help show us what human nature looks like. It can be a mirror to show us our true selves. But that is where action is required to make changes.

James 1 explains this principle: “Be you doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a [mirror]: for he beholds himself, and goes his way, and straightway forgets what manner of man he was” (vs. 22-24).

Sometimes we will see the hypocrisies in our lives. We will notice our failings. This verse shows we must seize those opportunities and change—or else we will slip back into transgressions. But even when we want to change, it can be incredibly difficult. Thankfully, God shows how to live His way.

To learn more, read Did God Create Human Nature? The booklet is filled with Bible verses revealing your human nature—it will show you the true you. Yet then you must apply James 1 and jump into action, to be a doer of what God’s Word says. Our article You Can Overcome and Prevent Sin explains how to overcome areas of weakness, fault and sin.

You can move beyond the scientific and hypothetical views of hypocrisy and make real changes in your life! 

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