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Hypocrisy Defined

Sat March 31 2007 11:16 pm
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Hypocrisy is the act of condemning another person with a criticism of a behavior or a lack of behavior which is also committed (openly or secretly) by the critic. A person engaged in hypocrisy is called a hypocrite.

Though hypocrisy is frequently invoked as an accusation in debates and often considered evil, immoral or deceitful; theorists have studied the utility of hypocrisy, and in some cases have suggested that the conflicts manifested as hypocrisy are a necessary or even beneficial part of human behavior and society.

In an act of hypocrisy the aim is to condemn another person or people, not to condemn an act. To preach against an act of which one is oneself guilty, does not in itself constitute hypocrisy, even if there are efforts to conceal the behavior. Hypocrisy occurs when verbal attacks or demands of punishment against perpetrators of the act are made by a person who has committed similar acts. Hypocrisy is often explained as, ‘the pot calling the kettle black.’

Concealment or evasion is not necessary for hypocrisy; hypocrisy can involve the open practice of a behavior for which one condemns others. If there is a salient difference between the critic and the criticized which makes the criticized person reproachable for the act, but the critic not reproachable for the act, then there is no hypocrisy. For example, a parent condemning their unprepared child for using a dangerous tool which the parent themselves uses with experience and safety is not hypocritical. If the difference in status appealed to by the critic is bogus, then it is indeed hypocrisy. The term double standard is used, confusingly enough, for both cases, as a simple descriptive phrase in the case of the parents, and as a pejorative phrase for open hypocrisy in the second case. Therefore ‘double standard’ isn’t always the same as ‘hypocrisy.’

Whether the criticism is based on the absence of a behavior or on the practice of a behavior, the same criteria for hypocrisy apply.

Psychology of Hypocrisy
In psychology, hypocritical behavior is closely related to the fundamental attribution error: individuals are more likely to explain their own actions by their environment, yet they attribute the actions of others to ‘innate characteristics’, thus leading towards judging others while justifying their own actions. In attribution theory, the fundamental attribution error (also known as correspondence bias or over-attribution effect) is the tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based, explanations for behaviors observed in others while de-emphasizing situational and environmental explanations of those people. In other words, people have an unjustified tendency to assume that a person’s actions depend on what “kind” of person that person is rather than on the social and environmental forces that influence the person. Over-attribution is less likely, perhaps even inverted, when people explain their own behavior; this discrepancy is called the actor-observer bias.

Fundamental attribution error probably results largely from perspective. When we observe another person, that person is the primary reference point because we are not always walking in their shoes. When we observe ourselves, we are more aware of the forces acting upon our own lives. So, attributions for others’ behavior are more likely to focus on the person we see, not the situational forces acting upon that person that we might no observe. In the parlance of psychology research, this is called salience: the more salient a factor is, the more likely it is for a behavior to be attributed to it.

A number of “debiasing” techniques have been found effective in reducing the effect of the fundamental attribution error:

Taking heed of “consensus” information. If most people behave the same way when put in the same situation, then the situation is more likely to be the cause of the behavior.

Ask yourself how you would behave in the same situation.

Looking for unseen causes; specifically, looking for less-salient factors.

Also, some people genuinely fail to recognize that they have character faults which they condemn in others. This is called Psychological Projection. This is usually self-deception rather than deliberate deception of other people. People understand vices which they are struggling to overcome or have overcome in the past. Efforts to get other people to overcome such vices may be sincere. There may be an element of hypocrisy as well if the actors do not readily admit how far they are or have been subject to these vices.

Multiple theories of hypocrisy have been proposed. The conflict caused by contradiction can lead to differing outcomes. In organizational studies, theorists like Nils Brunsson have discussed the paradox of the morality of hypocrisy. Brunsson reasons that, despite conventional social reactions to it, hypocrisy may be an essential guard against fanaticism, and may be to the benefit of high values and moral behaviour. In the field of international relations scholars such as Krasner have suggested that sovereignty, specifically as brought about by the Peace of Westphalia, reaffirmed the principle cuius regio, eius religio, meaning that the ruler’s faith became the official denomination of his state. Krasner calls this a system of “organized hypocrisy.”

The word hypocrisy, derives from the Late Latin hypocrisis which further derives from the Greek υπόκρισις (hypókrisis) — both meaning ‘play-acting’ or ‘pretense’. The Greek noun derives from the compound verb υποκρῑνεσθαι (hypokrīnesthai) from ὑπό- (hypo-) under + κρῑνειν (krīnein), to judge, which itself is etymologically related to the word “criticism”.


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