Why Hypocrisy Makes Your Head Explode

It’s an abuse of trust, but you can fight against it

Photo: AlessandraRC / Getty Images

We’re seeing hypocrisy play out in the political sphere to an extreme degree, and it’s driving many of us wild with rage.

The hypocrisy of Republicans installing Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court days before an election was almost too much to take in. The blatant reversal of standards, logical contortions required to defend the move, and sheer two-faced twisting of the national narrative surrounding fairness — applied specifically to the Supreme Court, one of the most esteemed arbiters of justice in the world — is beyond what a reasonable person can bear.

We’re not just mad because of the intellectual insult. It’s personal. We’re mad because our trust is being abused, that it makes a mockery of the kindness with which most people, on most days, approach the world. It destroys any expectations we have of baseline reciprocity for the generosity that makes cooperation possible.

We’re mad because the fabric of our daily lives is woven from small and large decisions that balance our needs with those of our neighbors and colleagues. We fund schools we don’t attend and stop for pedestrians at crosswalks even when we’re in a hurry. We give up our seats on public transit for people who need them more, and we take on more work when someone on our team is struggling. In the moment, these small actions are sometimes annoying and frequently inconvenient, but they align our actions with ideals like treating others as we’d like to be treated and creating a safe world for all living things.

Being a good human is hard work. It’s one of the central struggles of existence. And nothing undermines that work more than hypocrisy — the act of saying you’re doing one thing while doing another.

But we can stand up to hypocrites in a way that counteracts their hypocrisy and creates a more equitable world in which the rules apply to everyone. But doing so requires knowing exactly why it offends us so much in the first place.

Hypocrisy is a false signal

A 2017 Yale University study found that what people hated most about hypocrisy was “false signaling” — condemning behavior that you then engage in yourself.

“Hypocrites do in fact freeride,” the study’s authors write, “by using condemnation to imply that they will behave morally — without incurring the costs of actually doing so.”

Hypocritical false-signaling can also come packaged as praise, as with the parade of Republican senators so keen to commend Barrett on her large family who have also refused to draft or support laws that help working families thrive, like paid family leave, subsidized early childhood education and care, and living wages.

All of us engage in low-key hypocrisy from time to time, like lecturing a friend about the overuse of plastic one day and then buying individually packaged yogurt for school lunches out of convenience the next. This angers us just like political hypocrisy — because any act of hypocrisy isn’t just an annoyingly sanctimonious rant. It’s a violation of trust.

The authors of the Yale study expanded on their findings in a New York Times op-ed, writing, “We contend that the reason people dislike hypocrites is that their outspoken moralizing falsely signals their own virtue. People object, in other words, to the misleading implication — not to a failure of will or a weakness of character.”

Hypocrisy in politics is actively bad for democracy — it makes voters distrust not only the confirmed hypocrite but also their party and the entire political process. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Media Psychology found that when political hypocrisy is revealed, “anger toward the ex-politician resulted in an assimilation effect and decreased individuals’ trust toward the political elite more generally.”

Perhaps worst of all, the study found that people are less interested in voting when their trust is eroded in this way.

It’s easy to point these things out as gotchas and then feel outraged and disappointed when identifying hypocrisy doesn’t crush the hypocrite. In Slate, Joshua Keating discusses this phenomenon using the ideas of political theorist Judith Shklar, saying, “She described a form of politics in which rather than arguing over principle, political factions instead tried to prove that their opponents didn’t actually believe their own principles.” And to a certain degree, it doesn’t even matter if politicians believe their own principles if they use those principles to make policy that affects our lives. The way to counter hypocrisy in politics is to vote and not give in to the disillusionment hypocrisy breeds. Countering hypocrisy among the people in our personal lives is more direct.

How to counter a hypocrite

The stakes may be lower when hypocrisy appears in our personal lives, but there’s a lot more we can directly do to counter it there. And doing so may just strengthen the social fabric that hypocrisy frays. It’s the cool dad wearing “The Future is Female” shirt who will take his daughters to soccer on the weekends but rolls his eyes when his wife asks to talk about balancing the emotional labor in the household. It’s anyone who refuses to wear a mask in public right now, who benefits from everyone else’s efforts to reduce risk of Covid-19 without mitigating risk for others — freeriders, in the language of the Yale study.

The difficulty with attacking hypocrisy is that it acts as a shield: Its very existence is such an outrage that we often forget to go after the real issue. This is a mistake we can and must stop making, both in politics and in our personal lives.

Listen for the tell. The first thing we can do is understand why we feel so disappointed by hypocrites. The Yale study found that we believe people who speak against certain behaviors to be more morally admirable than those who say nothing. It’s another reason to be wary of virtue signaling — people who display their belief in social justice and activism without actually doing much to foster actual change. Whether someone is condemning others for their immoral choices or flaunting their own righteousness, prick up your ears and take note. Maybe that person just wants to find like-minded peers, or maybe there’s more going on.

Assess the depths of the hypocrisy. A gas-guzzling SUV with a “Keep Tahoe Blue” bumper sticker is aggravating, and if this is someone you know, playful mockery might be enough to spark some self-reflection. (At the very least, it will make you feel better.) If it has more serious potential for harm, like your family member who refuses to wear a mask, you’ll want to think more carefully about how to address it, using what you know of the other person and how they respond to conflict, before you dive in.

Educate yourself on the issue. If it’s mask-wearing, for example, read up on how masks work. Anticipate arguments like the imperfection of mask use, and be prepared to respond with bigger picture thinking and clever visual metaphors like the Swiss cheese model. Don’t make accusations about character; instead, bring the conversation around to the actual meat of the moral argument.

Engage on the issue, not the behavior. Your dad friend who dotes on his fierce daughter but won’t step up to the emotional-labor plate? Start by explaining a moment in which your own thinking shifted. Rather than calling him out, engage him in the actual issue, not the shittiness of his hypocrisy.

One potential intellectual starting place comes from the 2018 book Fed Up, in which Gemma Hartley reframes the gendered debate over who carries the mental load of the household by describing all that scheduling, gift buying, and planning as care work that helps us connect to one another and experience human life more fully. “Without a stake in the domestic realm, without emotional connection, without responsibility for their own lives, their worth hinges solely on their career status — what else holds value for them in the world as we know it?” she writes of many progressive husbands and dads. “They settle for less where it matters most, because we tell men that their worth is linked not to who they are but to what they do.”

Yes, hypocrisy makes us angry because it suggests that we are the only ones playing by rules that are sometimes difficult and not fun to follow. But noticing it and going beyond the irritating reality that we all engage in it sometimes, to explore why our actions and our intentions are odds, might save us all.

The current moment only encourages an endless echo chamber of accusations, double standards, and the ugliest forms of schoolyard arguments. You don’t feel good about yourself, the person you’re talking to, democracy, or humanity after engaging with hypocrisy on its own terms. But if we can remember to focus on the big ideas and fundamental human generosity that hypocrisy obscures, we just might have a chance to return to a world in which we don’t presume our neighbors to be idiots, or worse, hypocrites.

Annaliese Griffin is a writer and editor who most recently led the Quartz Daily Obsession, an award-winning newsletter. She lives in Vermont with her family.

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