What makes someone a hypocrite

"Hypocritical climate protectors" - how to deal with the accusation of hypocrisy?

When climate scientists, environmental activists or specialist politicians call for more climate protection, they are regularly faced with a dilemma: politically they demand one thing, but often do something else themselves. For example, they demand a drastic reduction in traffic emissions, but increase - more or less frequently - even in airplanes or cars. They may feel guilty about this. The fundamental difficulty, however, that in the existing social and economic conditions and with today's infrastructures, a really climate-friendly life is often very difficult or even impossible, they cannot resolve themselves. After all, hardly anyone is as consistent as the Oldenburg environmental economist Nico Paech, who doesn't get into a car and has flown only once in his life ...

Anyone who talks about climate protection or even generally about climate change often has a communicative problem: He is often perceived as a hypocrite or even explicitly defamed as a hypocritical "do-gooder". How exactly the strong rejection of hypocrisy comes about has been investigated by a team of researchers led by psychologist Jillian Jordan from Yale University in the United States in a series of experimental studies. The results are in the specialist journal Psychological Science published - and also give hints on how a climate communicator could escape the accusation of hypocrisy.

Why do people react so sensitively to (supposed) hypocrites?

Imagine a work colleague who is constantly warning everyone to turn off the lights. Maybe he is perceived as a bit annoying, but actually he is right. Now imagine that you happened to notice that this colleague kept the light on in his private house. In such a situation, people perceive the next admonitions from this colleague as hypocritical and hypocritical - his behavior is judged morally negatively. But why actually? Because, viewed in the light of day, he is definitely right with his admonitions, regardless of his individual behavior. And if you use them to reduce energy consumption in the office, the environment is still helped, no matter what your colleague is doing at home. Nevertheless, in this case the accusation of hypocrisy would be raised and the office colleagues would presumably not follow the admonitions to switch off the lights despite all the justification in the matter.

There are various theories among psychologists as to why hypocrisy is judged so negatively from a moral perspective. Some believe that the simple inconsistency between words and deeds is rejected. According to other theories, hypocrites are seen so negatively because they obviously act against better knowledge (the work colleague leaves the light on at home, although he knows from his constant admonitions that this is bad). The four-person Yale team around Jillian Jordan has now presented a more nuanced explanation, which they call the "Theory of False Signaling": According to this, hypocrites send out "false signals" about their own behavior, and other people feel cheated by them.

In their publication, the scientists describe five individual experiments with 450 to 800 people each. In online surveys, the test subjects were presented with various anecdotes about immoral behavior and its verbal condemnation. The anecdotes described, for example, conversations in which two people refused doping or the illegal downloading of music files from the Internet. The anecdotes varied, for example, in which of the performers condemned the misconduct, how that person behaved himself, whether he lied about his behavior, and so on. The test persons were then asked how they rated the people described morally.

The music download experiment, for example, showed that hypocrites are actually viewed extremely negatively: the test subjects were told of a person who illegally downloads music from the Internet. The subjects disapproved of the behavior. They disapproved much more if the person lied about it - that is, they claimed they were not downloading music illegally. It was felt even more negatively than this lie when a person illegally downloaded music after condemning such behavior (without explicitly saying anything about their own actions). To hypocrites is therefore much more strongly rejected than to lie or even to commit a rule violation in silence.

Another experiment showed that disapproval of immoral behavior brings a particularly strong increase in prestige: test subjects rated an athlete who condemned doping more morally than an athlete who "only" said that he himself did not take any doping substances.

Moral statements are often used to infer a person's behavior

A key result of the experiments was that moral statements are apparently often misinterpreted: for example, when we hear that someone condemns an action, we subconsciously derive assumptions about what this person is actually doing. For example, if someone expresses - to stay with the examples of the experiments - that he thinks doping is wrong, the audience concludes that this person is not doping himself (although, strictly speaking, he did not say this at all).

It is this misunderstanding that makes statements on climate change and climate protection so susceptible to hypocrisy: For example, if someone disapproves of high traffic emissions, the audience paradoxically often concludes that he or she only causes low emissions. This misperception is apparently a very strong mechanism: "According to our results, a person who says 'wasting energy is wrong' is even more likely to be considered frugal than a person who specifically says 'I don't waste energy,'" explain Jillian Jordan and their colleagues in the New York Times.

The researchers' advice: explicitly communicate your own inadequacy

In their experiments, however, the psychologists also show a communicative way out of this trap: They specifically investigated what happens when a speaker explicitly corrects the "wrong signal" when making a moral statement. For this purpose, the test persons were presented with anecdotes in which a person openly states that he himself sometimes shows the behavior condemned as immoral. And lo and behold: The test persons were these "honest hypocrites" ("honest hypocrites") judged much more positively - the rejection they showed other hypocrites disappeared." The extent to which people forgive an 'honest hypocrite' has amazed us, "said Jordan.

Preliminary conclusion for practice: Anyone who talks about climate change and calls for more climate protection should therefore, as a precaution, mention that they are not yet acting in an all-round climate-friendly manner.

Toralf Staud