People Dis­play Hypocrisy Not Only When Extending Leniency to Their Own Sins, But Also to the Sins of Mem­bers of Newly Formed Social Circles

(8/​8/​2007) BOSTON, Mass. – “Do as I say, not as I do.” This old adage refers to the con­cept of moral hypocrisy, a state of mind in which an indi­vidual readily for­gives his or her own moral trans­gres­sions, yet judges harshly the iden­tical sins of another. And while most people would like to believe their moral deci­sions are based on objec­tive prin­ci­ples, North­eastern Uni­ver­sity psy­chol­o­gists Pier­carlo Valdesolo and David DeSteno have dis­cov­ered the opposite.

In the latest edi­tion of Psy­cho­log­ical Sci­ence, DeSteno and Valdesolo present a study showing that, not only do people reg­u­larly for­give their own trans­gres­sions, but – adding an impor­tant new dimen­sion – they also extend the same leniency towards mem­bers of their social groups. Even more sur­prising, the study’s authors have found that this “group-​​based bias” in moral judg­ment is so deep-​​seated, it occurs even when the social groups are newly-​​formed and based on trivial connections.

In their study, DeSteno and Valdesolo required sub­jects to assign one of two tasks to both them­selves and to an anony­mous second party. One task was easy and enjoy­able, the other dif­fi­cult and tedious. Sub­jects could assign these tasks by one of two methods. The first involved using a random pro­ce­dure guar­an­teeing fair­ness. The second allowed sub­jects to assign tasks as they saw fit; thus trading objec­tivity for per­sonal preference.

Sub­jects were either led to believe that the second party was “sim­ilar” or “not sim­ilar” to them, based on a fic­ti­tious and trivial attribute, or they were given no infor­ma­tion at all about the second party. DeSteno and Valdesolo then asked some sub­jects to judge the fair­ness of their own trans­gres­sions, while asking others to judge an equal trans­gres­sion com­mitted by a second party.

Dis­playing strong self-​​interest, approx­i­mately 88% of sub­jects acted unfairly, assigning them­selves the easy test without using the random assign­ment pro­ce­dure. Demon­strating the preva­lence of moral hypocrisy, these sub­jects judged their own unfair action much more mildly than the iden­tical actions of unknown second party individuals.

Of greater sig­nif­i­cance, this hypocrisy proved to be sen­si­tive to group affil­i­a­tion. The hyp­o­crit­ical sub­jects readily excused the trans­gres­sions of second party indi­vid­uals with whom they shared new and trivial sim­i­larity, as noted above. Indeed, they judged the sins of these pur­ported acquain­tances as no more unfair than their own.

These find­ings speak to the pro­found sen­si­tivity of even our most valued prin­ci­ples to group con­cerns,” notes Valdesolo. “The mind is inher­ently social, and left unchecked, it will bias judg­ment in the ser­vice of our­selves and those like us, affording priv­i­leged status to even mar­gin­ally sim­ilar others.”

DeSteno adds, “Some­what dis­turbingly, these find­ings sug­gest that the dis­trust and ani­mosity often inherent in inter­group nego­ti­a­tion and inter­ac­tions stem not only from long-​​standing con­flict, but also from a more fun­da­mental bias of the mind. Rec­og­nizing this bias is the first step in working to reme­diate its poten­tially dam­aging influ­ence on inter­group relations.”

To obtain a copy of DeSteno’s and Valdesolo’s study, please con­tact John Natale at 617–373-2802 or j.​natale@​neu.​edu.

About North­eastern: Founded in 1898, North­eastern Uni­ver­sity is a pri­vate research uni­ver­sity located in the heart of Boston. North­eastern is a leader in inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research, urban engage­ment, and the inte­gra­tion of class­room learning with real-​​world expe­ri­ence. The university’s dis­tinc­tive coop­er­a­tive edu­ca­tion pro­gram, where stu­dents alter­nate semes­ters of full-​​time study with semes­ters of paid work in fields rel­e­vant to their pro­fes­sional inter­ests and major, is one of the largest and most inno­v­a­tive in the world. The Uni­ver­sity offers a com­pre­hen­sive range of under­grad­uate and grad­uate pro­grams leading to degrees through the doc­torate in six under­grad­uate col­leges, eight grad­uate schools, and two part-​​time divi­sions. For more infor­ma­tion, please visit www​.north​eastern​.edu.