Humans are built to be hypocritical

Robin Hanson makes this assertion in a recent post in his blog “Overcoming Bias.” I found his argument as to why this is so pretty provocative. Yesterday, I had actually linked out to an article at Science Daily on why powerful people don’t practice what they preach. The Science Daily piece pointed to research indicating more powerful individuals are more likely to be hypocrites.

"According to our research, power and influence can cause a severe disconnect between public judgment and private behavior, and as a result, the powerful are stricter in their judgment of others while being more lenient toward their own actions," he continued.

To simulate an experience of power, the researchers assigned roles of high-power and low-power positions to a group of study participants. Some were assigned the role of prime minister and others civil servant. The participants were then presented with moral dilemmas related to breaking traffic rules, declaring taxes, and returning a stolen bike.

Through a series of five experiments, the researchers examined the impact of power on moral hypocrisy. For example, in one experiment the "powerful" participants condemned the cheating of others while cheating more themselves. High-power participants also tended to condemn over-reporting of travel expenses. But, when given a chance to cheat on a dice game to win lottery tickets (played alone in the privacy of a cubicle), the powerful people reported winning a higher amount of lottery tickets than did low-power participants.

Pretty powerful stuff. That brings me to the Hanson piece. He says the following:

Humans are built to be hypocritical, i.e., to give lip service and soft thought to high ideals, while mostly acting to achieve low practical personal ends.  We manage this disconnect both by being stupid, and so not noticing our hypocrisy, and by being insincere, and so caring less when we notice.

Now human characteristics vary quite a bit, and so some folks are both unusually smart and unusually conscientious about their ideals.  More than most people, these folks notice their hypocrisy, and try to avoid it.  And since far ideals tend toward incoherence and impracticality, this has led smart sincere folks to invent a wide range of “ideologies” to substitute for their jumbled intuitions, with matching actions that range far from the norm.

Since showing sincerity and smarts is more important than accuracy, showing that one’s far ideals fit with a coherent and well-thought out ideology is more important than showing accuracy relative to some external standard.

If I understand Robin correctly, he is saying that a leader or pundit who seems to make coherent but more inaccurate statements is better regarded than one who makes less coherent but more accurate statements. A June article in New Science summed this regard up as “Humans prefer cockiness to expertise.”  What this means in practice is that ideologues (those who express extreme but more coherent views) are attractive because of the apparent coherence of their views – and I stress the word apparent. Robin puts it this way (emphasis added):

Now a modest dose of smart sincerity, limited by time, topic or temperament, is a good sign, as it indicates the positive qualities of intelligence and conscientiousness, qualities most any organization can put to good use.  So everyone wants to seem ideological to some degree.  And even a large dose of smart sincerity, if bundled with complements such as beauty, stamina, or charisma, can bring success as a “movement” or spiritual leader.  But without such complements, an overdose of smart sincerity tends toward evolutionary failure, typically achieving less success relative to ability.

Translation: reality is filled with contradictions that belie the apparent coherence of ideology. I have labeled the belief in strong versions of the efficient market hypothesis as misguided for just this reason.  Markets are efficient and de-centralized and we should almost always prefer them to the heavy and coercive hand of government – the stress being almost always. So, when I point out my belief in the primacy of markets, I guess I am following Robin’s dictum of wanting to seem ideological to some degree.  I hope I am also intelligent enough to know when ideology can lead us astray as well.

See John Hempton’s post Kodak, Bill Gates and efficient markets, where he demonstrates that this belief in strong versions of market efficiency can also be financially costly for the Smart Sincere thought leaders to whom Robin refers in his article.

As for my support of deregulation but my dim view of the anti-regulation movement – what I call deregulation as crony capitalism, the Science Daily piece sums it up well:

"Ultimately, patterns of hypocrisy and hypercrisy perpetuate social inequality. The powerful impose rules and restraints on others while dis regarding these restraints for themselves, whereas the powerless collaborate in reproducing social inequality because they don’t feel the same entitlement," Galinsky concluded.


Smart Sincere Syndrome – Robin Hanson

Why Powerful People — Many of Whom Take a Moral High Ground — Don’t Practice What They Preach – Science Daily

  1. Wag the Dog says

    The thing about this fuzzy far-mode justification that we often find underpinning dogmatic ideologies is that those in authority (i.e. the gatekeepers of the ideology) get to choose the far-term horizon. The ends, however distant, justify the means. Hence the defenders of the efficient market hypothesis always cite long-term balance and equilibrium arguments. There is some overlap with the laissez-faire advocacy of low government intervention by arguing that things will even out in the long run. Hence the response by Keynes: “In the long run we’re all dead”.

    Since hypocrisy is only profitable if there is a continuous supply of suckers to take advantage of. When a failed ideology ends up disillusioning the lower classes, they will switch to following some other leader. Hence social inequality should tend to limit the most extreme of ideologies, but only if such hypocrisy exceeds a threshold set by human’s in-built introspection bias — our inherent blindness to being bait-and-switched. However, extreme ideologies can still possess long lifetimes thanks to improved communications between ideologues and new recruits. So instead of a system of beliefs sustaining itself by being fair to those that have adopted it, a less fair far-term based ideology can alternatively sustain itself by ensuring that there are enough converts to make up for the losses due to disillusionment. In effect, extreme ideologies that maximise leadership hypocrisy are better able to survive among the wide choice of other ideals thanks to survivorship bias.

  2. LavrentiBeria says

    Actually to pose this notion of the power causality of hypocricy as a serious anthropological theory is almost laughable. It demonstrates only the poverty of modern social science in the absence of any undergirding moral construct. Here are amateurs playing at an understanding of humankind that has long since been grasped by religion: That the fundamental difficulty with human beings has nothing whatsoever to do with structures or power relationships but with sin, purely and simply. A man is a hypocrite because he is self-deceived and a sinner. The connection that one’s “power” may have to one’s demonstrable hypocricy is purely accidental, not substantial, and to believe otherwise is simply adolescent. Now I wouldn’t expect a social scientist – or most living Americans, frankly – to grasp what I’m getting at here, religion and its established truths a pariah among the powerful and most supercilious academic elites. Perhaps when Robin Hansen matures enough as a man he’ll want to find a confessional. :-)

    1. Edward Harrison says


      I think the point is that power gives one a sense of entitlement that makes it easier to sin. One tells oneself that the rules don’t apply to me because of this or that. This is what those scientific experiments put on display.

      It’s called hypocrisy.

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