Many would say that such decisions, which violate morally based positions, are highly hypocritical.
But if someone confidently says that dogs are the best pets and finally chooses to adopt a kitten, is that also a hypocrite?
Yes, say participants in a recent study led by assistant professor of marketing Jacob Tiny.
People seem to call others hypocrites not only because their actions contradict a moral stance, but because surprise observers feel about the decision. The more certainty someone expresses in a position, the more surprised people around them will be if they contradict that position – and the more hypocritical they will appear.
This unexpected finding—underscoring the role that surprise plays in our perception of hypocrisy—has implications for both how we judge others and how others might judge us.
“We can very quickly call someone a hypocrite,” says Teeny. “But we need to know how much surprise is related to how highly we rate pretenders. Just because it is surprising does not change the act itself.’
Hypocrisy, morality and surprise
Hypocrisy is generally defined as an inconsistency between a person’s attitude and subsequent behavior – in other words, saying one thing but doing another.
Violation of an ethical stance, however, can be seen as particularly egregious. Recent survey found that leaders who contradicted a moral stance were seen as more hypocritical than those who contradicted a pragmatic stance.
But Tiny wasn’t so sure that morality itself provided the whole answer. For a different view, he looked at “decision influence theory”—how people’s expectations drive the strength of their emotional responses. For example, if you think a movie is going to be really good and it turns out to be mediocre, you’ll probably rate that movie lower than if you expected it to be mediocre.
Teeny suspected that expectations might matter here too. That is, what may be key to the enhanced hypocrisy of violating a moral stance is one’s certainty of one’s beliefs. The more steadfast one is about a position that one continues to violate, Teeny surmised, the more surprising one’s behavior is, and thus the harsher one’s hypocrisy will be judged.
“We thought, is there a simpler explanation for how people judge hypocrites?” He says. “Are people more surprised when others violate an attitude of certainty?”
Hypocrites may be more surprising
In a series of experiments, Teeny and his colleagues—Richard Petty and Jaroth Lanzalotta of Ohio State University—tested their theory.
In the first study, participants read a vignette about a man named Cody whose home state was voting to legalize the death penalty. Half of the participants learned that Cody opposed the death penalty on moral grounds (it’s wrong to execute a prisoner), while the rest read that his opposition was practical (it’s too expensive to execute a prisoner). They then assessed how difficult it would be to change Cody’s attitude.
The panelists were then told that Cody ultimately voted for the death penalty. At this point, they rated their level of surprise at his decision, as well as how hypocritical they found it.
Consistent with previous research, participants who read that Cody’s opposition was based on morality rated his hypocrisy more harshly than those who read his opposition was based on pragmatism.
But, according to Teeny’s case, moral opposition was also seen as more difficult to change—and more surprising. This provided tantalizing evidence that surprise is a key ingredient in why people see moral hypocrisy as particularly bad.
But how much of a role does surprise really play in our judgments of hypocrisy? Can it make us see hypocrisy even in non-morally charged situations?
Teeny and his colleagues devised new vignettes in which a man either strongly endorsed chocolate ice cream or took a less firm stance in favor of the flavor. In both scenarios, the man ended up serving vanilla ice cream at a party.
Once again, surprise was associated with ratings of hypocrisy. Participants who read about the die-hard chocolate lover found his actions more surprising and thus more hypocritical than those who read about the dubious ice cream.
“There was no possibility that ethics were involved in that decision,” says Teeny. “And our explanation still stands. It shows that morality alone cannot explain how people judge hypocrites. It shows that people who express certainty in their attitudes or express their opinion publicly indicate that their opinion is difficult to change. And when they change it, it causes surprise and a greater performance of hypocrisy.”
To reduce the risk of being called a hypocrite, signal that you could change your mind
If certain behaviors lead to higher hypocrisy scores, the researchers wondered, would the opposite also be true? In other words, if a person had a malleable attitude and changed their attitude, would observers be less surprised and therefore less likely to call them a hypocrite?
They tested this question in two final studies.
In the first, the researchers described a historical (but fictional) culture whose view of morality was not so fixed. That is, although nowadays we see moral beliefs as unchanging, this historical group was supposed to be changing their moral beliefs all the time.
Later in the vignette, a member of that culture went against a stated moral belief, and participants rated how hypocritical that person seemed. As expected, when participants perceived that this culture treated morality as variable, they rated the individual’s contradictory behavior as less hypocritical.
In short, the experiment showed that “if we eliminate the surprise by making participants believe that moral attitudes are very malleable, then we also reduce the hypocrisy score,” says Teeny.
In a final study along the same lines, participants read about a man who opposed the death penalty and then voted for it. This time, however, some attendees read that before the vote, the man accidentally attended an event with speakers who explained why they morally supported the death penalty. Participants who received this additional context rated the man as less hypocritical than those who did not—even though he performed the same act of hypocrisy. Once again, this additional information lessened the surprise of an ethical violation by reducing how hypocritical it seemed.
Watch out for the surprise, but don’t let the hypocrites get away with it
To be sure, surprise is not the only factor behind how harshly someone is branded a hypocrite.
For example, people from cultures that encourage independence (such as the United States) tend to call hypocrites more often than people from cultures that emphasize interdependence and a collective mindset.
Still, it’s clear that surprise plays a big part—something we all need to keep in mind before judging others. Is this person really a hypocrite or are we just surprised by his actions? For example, if a CEO says one thing and then does another, is that leader behaving hypocritically, or did he simply receive more information that caused him to change his mind?
“You might just be surprised by a decision because you don’t know everything that’s going on,” says Teeny.
At the same time, if a politician keeps flip-flopping until their constituents are no longer surprised by their hypocrisy, you don’t have to give them a pass.
“Be aware of the leniency you’re giving,” says Tiny, “and know that it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re less hypocritical.”