Private Good Deeds That Appear To Compensate For Bad Public Behaviour Make People Seem Hypocritical

By Emma Young

It’s hard to find a clearer example of moral hypocrisy than this: in 2015, Josh Duggar, a family values activist and director of a lobby group set up “to champion marriage and family as the foundation of civilisation, the seedbed of virtue, and the wellspring of society” was outed as holding an account with a dating service for people who are married or in relationships.

As Kieran O’Connor at the University of Virginia and colleagues point out in a new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition, Duggar’s apparently virtuous public image was in stark contrast to his private behaviour. This was a classic case, then, of hypocrisy. But as the team now reveal through a compelling series of seven studies, another type of discrepancy is seen as being hypocritical too. That’s when individuals are perceived to use private good deeds to assuage their guilt over morally dubious public works.

In expanding understanding of what constitutes hypocrisy, the work has practical as well as theoretical applications. As the researchers observe: “Understanding how people think about hypocrisy is important because individuals and organisations suffer severe consequences when they are perceived as hypocritical.” A scandal that involves hypocrisy is extra damaging for a politician or an organisation, the team points out.

The initial studies dug into the circumstances in which we judge inconsistencies in people’s behaviour as hypocritical. In one study, for instance, 317 participants of more than 60 different nationalities (all living in London) each read three vignettes about organisations that cause harm, and people publicly associated with them who acted virtuously in private. In some cases, these private acts seemed inconsistent with the individual’s public behaviour. In others, they did not. For example, a vignette featuring a factory farm that abused animals was tweaked into two different versions, so that an employee made anonymous, lump-sum donations to improve animal welfare, or donated to help high-school students instead. The participants were asked to what extent, in each case, the behaviour was hypocritical.

The results showed that being bad-in-public but good-in-private is perceived as hypocrisy. And when  good private behaviour was inconsistent with an individual’s public role, they were seen as more hypocritical than when that behaviour was completely unrelated . So a donation by a tobacco industry employee to a fund for lung-cancer research was regarded as being more hypocritical than a donation by the same individual to an animal welfare charity, for example.

In another study, 409 online participants each read excerpts of similar case studies. As before, they rated the featured individual’s hypocrisy. But this time, they also rated the extent to which they felt the individual was using private virtuous behaviour to try to alleviate their guilt, and completed a questionnaire assessing how praiseworthy they felt the individual to be.

The team found that good private behaviour that was inconsistent with their public role (rather than simply unrelated to it) made the individual appear more motivated by guilt, which in turn predicted higher hypocrisy ratings. And, in turn, this predicted lower praise for his good deeds.

A final study on 1,275 English-speaking participants living outside the US found that the extent to which an individual successfully reduced their guilt was important for perceptions of hypocrisy. In this case study, a man who experienced guilt at selling harmful opioids was reported as feeling prompted to make a donation to the arts. When this brought “no relief”, he was perceived as being less hypocritical than when this private act was said to have fully cleansed his conscience. The participants also reported that, in this second version, he felt better than he deserved to feel, and rated him as being significantly less praiseworthy. As the researchers write, “At least in this context, using good deeds to alleviate your guilt was tantamount to claiming an undeserved moral benefit.”

This work shows that people conceptualise hypocrisy more broadly than had been thought, write O’Connor and his team. It also provides clear evidence for one of two competing theories of hypocrisy: that it relates to perceptions of undeserved benefits (rather than, as has also been suggested, the sending of false signals to others).

More work is now needed to explore whether more drastic private virtuous actions — giving away one’s entire wealth to fund a new museum, perhaps, rather than merely making “a donation” — might be deemed to compensate for at least certain types of morally dubious public behaviour.

As the researchers write, “The question of what behaviors will convince observers that a clear conscience does not imply hypocrisy must await future research.”

Moral cleansing as hypocrisy: When private acts of charity make you feel better than you deserve.

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest