In the News: Worse Than Lying

In today’s New York Times “Sunday Review,” Jillian Jordan, Roseanna Sommers, and David Rand review their recent research on why we hate hypocrites so much.

Imagine an environmental activist who hounds people to turn off the lights whenever they leave a room but fails to do so himself. He is a hypocrite. And we hate him. But why, the authors ask, do we hate him so much?

Their answer is that we take moral statements (“it is wrong to waste energy”) as an indication of how the speaker himself acts, even more so than factual statements (“I don’t waste energy”). This means that hypocritical statements are even worse than lying. And this is exactly what their research has found: people view hypocrites as less honest, less trustworthy, less likable, and less morally upright than people who openly lie (i.e., people who say “I don’t waste energy” when they actually do).

Interestingly, however, they also found that if you make a moral statement but explicitly clarify that you don’t always act in accordance with it (i.e., you say “I think it’s morally wrong to waste energy, but I sometimes do it anyway”), you can avoid these negative judgments of hypocrisy. In this case, you will simply be judged on the basis of your actions—the same as someone who wastes energy, but make no moral claims about it.

In The Science of Speaking, I explain that it can be beneficial to admit a weakness in your argument before your audience discovers it themselves. This research shows that this advice is particularly relevant in the case of moral arguments. When you’re making a moral claim (i.e., a Halo appeal), if there’s a chance that you might be discovered as a hypocrite, it’s good to defuse the situation upfront by admitting that you don’t always live up to the ideals you’re proposing, but that the audience should at least join you in trying.