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The Psychology of Hypocrisy

4 minute read
John Cloud

Larry Craig was only the latest. Republican Bob Allen, a conservative Florida legislator, was also caught in a men’s room this summer. (Predicting Craig’s denials, he claimed his alleged offer to a cop of $20 and oral sex was a “big misunderstanding.”) In 2006, Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, admitted “sexual immorality” after a male personal trainer said on Denver radio that he had sex with Haggard. And now an Indiana prosecutor is investigating whether Glenn Murphy Jr., 33, who recently resigned the chairmanship of the Young Republicans, began oral sex with a sleeping 22-year-old man in July. (An attorney for Murphy, Larry Wilder of Jeffersonville, Ind., says carefully, “The events that took place that evening were consensual.”)

For a legion of bloggers, what’s so delectable about these stories is the apparent hypocrisy, the dissonance between the outwardly conservative politics of these men and their private same-sex behavior. But while these guys may be liars–Craig’s “wide stance” inanity has already entered the world-historical lexicon of political b.s.–it’s not clear that they are conniving hypocrites. Here’s a moistly liberal request: Can we have a moment of pity for moralizers who fall?

Hypocrisy is among the most universal and well-studied of psychological phenomena, and the research suggests that Craig, Haggard and the others may be guilty not so much of moral hypocrisy as moral weakness. The distinction may sound trivial at first, but as a society, we tend to forgive the weak and shun the hypocritical. As psychologists Jamie Barden of Howard University, Derek Rucker of Northwestern and Richard Petty of Ohio State have shown, we often use a simple temporal cue to distinguish between the weak and the hypocritical: if you say one thing and then do another, you are much less likely to be forgiven than if you do one thing and then say another. Barden, Rucker and Petty use this example: a radio host says on-air that he’s joining a fitness organization but then eats pizza for a week and gains five pounds. Hypocrite! Now consider the reverse order: the host eats pizza for a week and then publicly joins a fitness group. “In each case,” the psychologists wrote in a 2005 paper in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, “the statements and behaviors are equally inconsistent.” But we see something almost noble about the second scenario.

Assume for a moment that Craig and Haggard actually believed what they said–that homosexuality is sin. They spent most of their lives fighting for the conservative cause. But in Craig’s case, the Idaho Statesman has published allegations that there were at least three other slipups involving men, beginning in 1967. What if, like the radio host who gets fat but commits to losing weight, the moralizers were trying through their “pro-family” endeavors to expiate their lustful sins? You may think they are wrong about homosexuality (I do), but that doesn’t make them hypocrites.

In the 1950s, Stanford psychologist Leon Festinger famously used the term cognitive dissonance to describe the discomfort we feel when our behaviors don’t align with our beliefs. Festinger found that people will go to great lengths to reduce dissonance. In one well-known experiment, those who had been asked to falsely claim that a boring task–placing spools on a tray, for instance–was fun were later found to have persuaded themselves that the task really was fun. They had crossed over from hypocrisy to something more pathetic: self-deception. In this light, getting married, having kids and advancing conservatism looks more like a heartfelt, doomed effort to change sexuality than a hypocritical ploy.

So who are the real hypocrites? Because their decision making is usually more diffuse, institutions aren’t as susceptible to cognitive dissonance. Corporations and political parties routinely say one thing (the GOP is the party of strict values) and do another (the party let Louisiana Senator David Vitter, who unlike Craig holds a swing-state seat, get off with a simple apology after he was linked to a female prostitution ring). The GOP’s moralizers deserve some pity. The party itself, not so much.

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