When is it Good To Be a Hypocrite?

In my recent article where I shared beliefs I’ve changed (or started to doubt) since starting writing this blog, I included one hypothesis about why we so often fail to do the things we should:

Are a lot of “good” habits just signalling attempts? Maybe I’ve just been reading too much Robin Hanson, but he does provide a convincing explanation of why we often don’t things we think we should. The reason being, that we don’t actually want to do those things, but want to seem like we do, so we make striving to do those things part of our conscious self-presentation but subconsciously sabotage ourselves in actually doing them. Some possible examples: reading more books, not watching television, giving to charity.

The deep, dark idea here is that human beings evolved not only with desires to do things which were helpful in our survival, but also desires to express desires to other people which helped our survival. So a person might have a built-in desire for food to keep from being hungry, but also a built-in desire to appear generous, to attract friends and allies.

The dark part of the idea is that sometimes the desire to project a certain self-image runs counter to our more direct desires. For example, appearing generous is beneficial because it wins you friends, but being generous is costly because you have to actually put up money.

Charity is a rather obvious example of something we all want to create the impression of (that we’re charitable people) but that we may not necessarily feel like doing (actually giving away our time and money).

One, even darker, idea is that since lying is hard to do, our natures may have evolved to protect us from the dangers inherent in this self-contradiction. Instead of self-consciously feeling like we want to appear charitable but actually be stingy, we sincerely believe in the values of charity but subconsciously sabotage ourselves in actually donating anything. Instead, we claim failures of discipline, busyness of literally anything possible when confronted with the contradiction that we believe we should give to charity but don’t actually give very much.

As a solution to the evolutionary problems (wanting to appear generous, be stingy, but lying is hard), this one actually works rather well. Nobody can truly call you a liar, because you sincerely believe in the values you want to project, but such sincerity doesn’t cost you anything because you’ll invent excuses to prevent you from actually following through with it.

I’m not convinced that this model of human behavior explains every gap in our idealized self-image and actual behavior, but it does seem to explain a lot of the seeming irrationality in people’s actions.

Hypocrites, By Design

“Learning Spanish and learning to play guitar are the two things on the perpetual back-burner of every American.”

Vat, who I did my year-long language learning project with (and also a guitar player), joked this to me while we were preparing our TEDx Talk. I laughed and said I completely agreed. Tons of people we’ve met claim a deep desire to learn Spanish, but haven’t even put in the most modest of efforts to move closer to that goal.

Language learning is a high-status activity. Being able to speak more than one language shows you’re cultured, intelligent and interesting (at least, in theory). Therefore, many people want to self-consciously express a desire to learn a language.

However language learning is hard work. Not to mention that the economic returns to learning a language other than English in the United States are considerably lower than the benefit of learning English in most other countries. Therefore, for a lot of people, learning a language is a goal they want to appear to have, but they don’t actually have sufficient interest for actually pursuing it.

I used language learning as an example of such an activity, but I think there are many potential other candidates of hypocrisy-by-design:

  • Reading more books. Books are hard to read (compared to blogs or magazines) and signal intelligence, knowledge and sophistication. So we want to give people the impression we strive to read books, but not actually do this.
  • Cutting back on vices like television, junk food, drinking or smoking. It’s not socially acceptable to simply state that you value eating junk food more than being thin or healthy. So instead you use excuses like you don’t have time to eat well, or you lack willpower.
  • Making improvements in your career. We want to appear ambitious and productive, so we might come up with idealized dream jobs, but not actually take any concrete actions to make them a reality.

How Important is Hypocrisy-By-Design?

Obviously this cynical explanation for the numerous failures of self-improvement efforts, competes with the more typical story. The typical story is that we fail to improve ourselves because of failures of discipline, motivation or strategy. If we could augment or change those elements, the correct changes would happen for us.

I don’t believe that it is the case that all failures of self-improvement are because of this, or that the typical story is wrong. Instead, I think it’s probably a mixture of both, depending on the case. Sometimes we fail earnestly because the goal is hard. Sometimes we fail because we never really wanted the goal in the first place.

However, I believe that in order to live better, it’s important to know not only why we succeed when we do, but also why we fail. Therefore, when you constantly struggle against a self-improvement goal, it’s worth examining the possibility that your failure is not because of the typical story of low willpower and poor strategy, but possibly because you’re sabotaging yourself from reaching it.

  • Oj

    I’m inclined to disagree with the signalling model for habit failure.

    Of course we need more self honesty about what habits we actually want to hold but I don’t think self deception explains even most of why people don’t actually create habits they want. We have some second-order desires that are in conflict with the way we behave but our behaviour isn’t always a signal for what we want.

    As you said, a lot of habits are quite difficult but I wouldn’t be surprised if more people, with some more thinking about their wants, would still aim to do good things even if they weren’t seen by other people.

  • Oj

    I’m inclined to disagree with the signalling model for habit failure.

    Of course we need more self honesty about what habits we actually want to hold but I don’t think self deception explains even most of why people don’t actually create habits they want. We have some second-order desires that are in conflict with the way we behave but our behaviour isn’t always a signal for what we want.

    As you said, a lot of habits are quite difficult but I wouldn’t be surprised if more people, with some more thinking about their wants, would still aim to do good things even if they weren’t seen by other people.

  • CmplxAdSys

    “Therefore, when you constantly struggle against a self-improvement goal, it’s worth examining the possibility that your failure is not because of the typical story of low willpower and poor strategy, but possibly because you’re sabotaging yourself from reaching it.”

    If I am sabotaging myself from reaching a goal, what is an actionable way to deal with this? This would make an interesting future blog post!

  • CmplxAdSys

    “Therefore, when you constantly struggle against a self-improvement goal, it’s worth examining the possibility that your failure is not because of the typical story of low willpower and poor strategy, but possibly because you’re sabotaging yourself from reaching it.”

    If I am sabotaging myself from reaching a goal, what is an actionable way to deal with this? This would make an interesting future blog post!

  • Luiz Machado

    Hi Scott,

    I believe that most americans should work on improving their english skills first, because it will give them the greatest return on investment. Learning to think deeply in your primary language and how to understand complex texts will have more benefit than learning many foreign language (unless your job is translator/foreign language intensive). We should strive to make the primary “operating system” of our brains sharp, because the benefits will quickly transfer to our daily lives.

  • Luiz Machado

    Hi Scott,

    I believe that most americans should work on improving their english skills first, because it will give them the greatest return on investment. Learning to think deeply in your primary language and how to understand complex texts will have more benefit than learning many foreign language (unless your job is translator/foreign language intensive). We should strive to make the primary “operating system” of our brains sharp, because the benefits will quickly transfer to our daily lives.

  • Alberto (from Paris)

    Hi Scott,
    as a follow up to your post, this is a very interesting recent philosophy book to read: Character as Moral Fiction. Using a lot of data form psychology, it defends the idea that both character traits and moral virtues are a form of signaling, instead of genuine dispositions to behave in a certain way. We would manage our self image as courageous or generous, instead of actually being interested in cultivating courageous or generous behavior.
    http://www.amazon.fr/Character-Moral-Fiction-Mark-Alfano/dp/1107538122/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1443609507&sr=8-1&keywords=character+as+moral+fiction

  • Alberto (from Paris)

    Hi Scott,
    as a follow up to your post, this is a very interesting recent philosophy book to read: Character as Moral Fiction. Using a lot of data form psychology, it defends the idea that both character traits and moral virtues are a form of signaling, instead of genuine dispositions to behave in a certain way. We would manage our self image as courageous or generous, instead of actually being interested in cultivating courageous or generous behavior.
    http://www.amazon.fr/Character

  • Scott Young

    It’s about recognizing deeper truths about yourself. If you’re not achieving a goal, one reason could be because you don’t genuinely desire it. In which case, you need to change your motivation or stop pursuing it.

  • Scott Young

    It’s about recognizing deeper truths about yourself. If you’re not achieving a goal, one reason could be because you don’t genuinely desire it. In which case, you need to change your motivation or stop pursuing it.

  • Scott Young

    This is very interesting. I’ve added it to my to-read list.

  • Scott Young

    This is very interesting. I’ve added it to my to-read list.

  • 🙂

  • Sneha P A

    🙂

  • Great read. It is always important to have a balance.

  • Rose Costas

    Great read. It is always important to have a balance.

  • Damn right, we are hypocrites. There are innumerable examples:

    1. I love my friends and want to spend more time with them but “I don’t have time to do it” -> What they’re really saying: Friendships are not that important to me; I’ll talk to them only when I need something from them. (But that’s not something to say out loud, is it?)
    2. Another excuse to not give to charity: Every time they hear a report that somebody is getting rich, they say why aren’t the rich contributing more to charity? That gives them an excuse to not do it; since it’s now somebody else’s responsibility!

  • jeshan

    Damn right, we are hypocrites. There are innumerable examples:

    1. I love my friends and want to spend more time with them but “I don’t have time to do it” -> What they’re really saying: Friendships are not that important to me; I’ll talk to them only when I need something from them. (But that’s not something to say out loud, is it?)
    2. Another excuse to not give to charity: Every time they hear a report that somebody is getting rich, they say why aren’t the rich contributing more to charity? That gives them an excuse to not do it; since it’s now somebody else’s responsibility!

  • Aedan R

    This is a really interesting article Scott. Most behavior change experts like ramit sethi or Tony Robbins say that the “why” of the behavior change is extremely important. I think if someone wanted to learn Spanish to seem more cultured they may be less likely to follow through than if they wanted to learn it to communicate better with their spouse or even the potential pain of failing a test in school.

  • Aedan R

    This is a really interesting article Scott. Most behavior change experts like ramit sethi or Tony Robbins say that the “why” of the behavior change is extremely important. I think if someone wanted to learn Spanish to seem more cultured they may be less likely to follow through than if they wanted to learn it to communicate better with their spouse or even the potential pain of failing a test in school.

  • Akira1643

    Hmmm I’m curious about other thoughts on what I am about to write. Many psychologists say the first step is acceptance that there is a problem. Perhaps the first step in the above situation is to admit to ourselves that, “Yes, I do enjoy junk food instead of being healthy and thin.” With that brutal display of honesty you can clear up the fog that this state of hypocrisy creates. It is almost a fog of uncomfortable, but not too uncomfortable to make an effort to change. Brutal honesty may be the catalyst for change or at least it will stop you from making excuses and get you closer to acceptance that nothing will change. If you do change you can then figure out your “Why” for change. Honesty is the best policy.

  • Akira1643

    Hmmm I’m curious about other thoughts on what I am about to write. Many psychologists say the first step is acceptance that there is a problem. Perhaps the first step in the above situation is to admit to ourselves that, “Yes, I do enjoy junk food instead of being healthy and thin.” With that brutal display of honesty you can clear up the fog that this state of hypocrisy creates. It is almost a fog of uncomfortable, but not too uncomfortable to make an effort to change. Brutal honesty may be the catalyst for change or at least it will stop you from making excuses and get you closer to acceptance that nothing will change. If you do change you can then figure out your “Why” for change. Honesty is the best policy.

  • Thomas Van ‘t Hoff

    Interesting hypothesis.

  • Thomas Van ‘t Hoff

    Interesting hypothesis.

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