What is a Hypocrite?

hyp-o-crite

/ˈhipəˌkrit/

noun

a person who claims to have moral standards to which that person’s own behavior fails to conform.

What is an Example of Being a Hypocrite?

I once worked with a person we’ll call “Dick.” Dick always told me he’d get things back to me “today or tomorrow,” but he seldom did.

Dick didn’t have to tell me he’d get things to me that soon. He could have said, “next week” or “as soon as I can,” and I would have been fine with that. Instead, Dick had a habit of promising to deliver by a certain date, but he wouldn’t follow through.

Here’s the funny thing about Dick: despite rarely turning things in when he said he would, he showed no compassion when other people didn’t meet their deadlines. If someone was late with work they owed Dick, he’d offer little sympathy and would instead rail on about the importance of “being dependable” and a “team player.”

Dick was a good example of a hypocrite.

Dick’s baffling double standard was as tiring as it was toxic. His hypocrisy of setting expectations and not delivering, while showing little sympathy for others, was the reason I decided I just couldn’t work with Dick.

Do you have any Dicks in your life? I bet you do, not only in the workplace but also in your personal lives. For instance, that flaky friend who says they’d love to get together but always has something come up at the last minute—a Dick. But sometimes we are the Dicks in our lives. We hate when people flake on their commitments to us, and yet, if we don’t follow through, there’s somehow always a good reason. To understand this quirky bit of human psychology, let’s first understand why we hate Dicks.

A hypocrite, criticizing a coworker for not meeting deadlines while ignoring reminders of his own late projects.

What is “Being a Hypocrite?”

Dick is being a hypocrite because he uses one set of standards to judge other people and a different set to judge himself.

Applying different standards to people is natural. Think of experts who have specialized knowledge or skills. We expect them to know things other people don’t, and because of that, we hold them to different standards. We don’t criticize our spouse for not knowing how to fix the drain, but we would criticize an incompetent plumber. The same is true of people in relationships of special trust. We don’t blame a casual acquaintance for failing to mention the bit of broccoli stuck in our teeth, but we do blame a close friend for not pointing it out. Then there are people whose circumstances warrant different treatment: children, the elderly, the disadvantaged, or those with mental or physical disabilities.

A person applying different levels of judgment to different types of people: an expert, a spouse, a baby.

In these and many other cases we use different standards to evaluate people. So why do hypocrites like Dick infuriate us?

One reason is that unlike the foregoing cases, Dick’s double standards aren’t keyed to people’s social roles or circumstances. Dick applies different standards to people in the same circumstances he’s in, doing the same things he does. This violates a basic principle of fairness: equals deserve equal treatment.

If Dick and I are coworkers, equally late with our assignments and equally undeserving of special accommodations, it’s unfair to treat us differently. Fairness demands that either we both take a hit or we both get a pass. We’re justified in feeling angry at someone—anyone: the boss, you, me, or Dick himself—for treating us differently, just as we’re justified in being angry at a teacher who plays favorites or a fellow shopper who cuts in line.

The principle of equal treatment is enshrined in many of our institutions. For instance, in America, our system of government is based on the principle that no one is above the law. The words “Equal Justice Under Law” appear above the entrance of the United States Supreme Court.

Though it’s a relatively minor example compared to other potential abuses of power, there’s an especially emblematic and infuriating form of institutional hypocrisy perpetrated by many police officers in America. It’s often referred to as the “get-out-of-jail card,” and it’s given to family and friends of police officers to identify them as people deserving special treatment.

A card provided to police officers’ family members, indicating their special status, to get special treatment.

The card is issued by local police unions, and the idea is that if you present it to an officer, he or she will turn a blind eye to a minor infraction such as a speeding ticket.

According to a story in The New York Times, “Union officials say the cards are also public relations tools and tokens of appreciation handed out to politicians, judges, lawyers, businessmen, civil service workers and members of the news media.” This is an example of un-equal justice under law, and the fact that police unions give out these cards makes it a textbook case of hypocrisy.

Of course, police officers deserve respect, and their job isn’t easy. However, it’s ridiculous to think that anyone committing a crime should get a free pass solely for knowing a cop. It’s also emblematic of other less well-known ways police unions demand special treatment that make it almost impossible to dole out equal justice.

Of course, it’s possible to treat equals unequally by accident: the teacher might not know that a student has special needs, and the fellow shopper might not have seen the line snaking around the corner. The problem with hypocrites is that they employ double standards not by accident but by habit.

Dick always plays favorites, and his favorite favorite is himself. That habitual self-favoritism gets to another reason hypocrisy angers us: hypocrites implicitly assign themselves a different moral and social status.

Two people, both running late. One is a hypocrite, criticizing the other for the same thing he is guilty of.

When Dick excoriates people for doing the very things he does, he is signaling that he thinks he’s special, that he’s above the rules, and that he’s unconstrained by the principles that govern the rest of us. In short, he acts as if he’s better than we are, and for that reason, his dealings with other people always smack of disrespect.

That’s part of why hypocrisy erodes the relationships of trust and mutual respect we all need to do well in life. It’s hard to feel empathy for someone who treats you like a second-class human, and even harder to feel motivated to further their ends. It’s difficult trusting someone you’re convinced doesn’t value your values, or your time, effort, or abilities.

But there’s an even deeper problem with hypocrisy: it compromises our integrity. The word “integrity” has its roots in the Latin word “integritas,” meaning “intact.” It’s how we describe a whole that isn’t weakened or compromised. A crack in a foundation compromises the integrity of a building; a crack in the hull compromises the integrity of a ship. A whole that’s been compromised is weak: a building is more likely to collapse, a ship to sink.

The same is true of people. Dick is a weaker person for being a hypocrite. To understand why it’s important to see that Dick not only disrespect others, he also disrespects himself. The same double standards he applies to other people, he also applies to his own professed values, on the one hand, and to his actions, on the other.

Dick could stop being a hypocrite either by acting in ways that reflect his principles or by endorsing principles that reflect the self-importance of his actions. But he does neither of these things.

Instead, he acts either like his principles are unworthy of being put into action, or like his actions are unworthy of reflecting his principles. Whichever it is, Dick doesn’t respect some aspect of himself. It’s hard respecting a person who doesn’t respect himself. We can’t take Dick seriously because he doesn’t take himself seriously: he either discounts his values, or he discounts the value of his actions.

To be fair, Dick and his ilk aren’t the only ones who act this way. No one acts consistently with their values 100% of the time. Parents, for instance, routinely fail to practice what they preach. Here are some all-too-common examples:

  • “Stop wasting your time staring at a screen playing video games!” [Parent checks Facebook two minutes later or watches another hour of football on TV.]
  • “If you hit your brother again, you’re going to get a spanking!”
  • “You need to eat healthily and exercise!” [Parent doesn’t do either one.]
  • Screaming, “Stop yelling and speak to me with respect, young lady!”
A hypocritical mother admonishing her daughter for being 5 minutes late, but then being 5 hours late herself on another occasion.

I have been guilty of parental hypocrisy myself. Like many parents, I raised my daughter to believe that having a set bedtime is very important. I’d preach about why getting to bed at a fixed time was critical to physical and mental health. I knew full well what the research said, and I’d implore her to stop resisting my nightly demands and just go to bed already.

“Then why aren’t you going to bed, Daddy?” she’d ask. “Because adults don’t need as much sleep as kids do, but I’ll be going to bed soon, too,” I’d retort.

A hypocritical father telling his toddler the importance of adequate sleep, but then staying up late to work.

I certainly wanted to be the kind of person who got enough sleep, and I’d say I was going to go to bed on time. I also knew I would be in a better mood and have a better day tomorrow if I did.

But did I actually keep my bedtime? Nope. Did I know I was acting contrary to my professed values? Yep.

I’d tell my daughter that I’d go to bed soon, but that was a lie. After my pipsqueak had nodded off, I’d stay up late, typically scrolling around the internet for hours. It’s embarrassing but true. I acted like a hypocrite.

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Who is a Hypocrite?

A recent survey of 2,000 adults asked respondents about their top goals. The results showed an unsurprising list of intentions. “Diet or eat healthier” topped the list at 71%, while other goals like “save more and spend less” and “read more” were mentioned by 32% and 17% respectively. What all these goals have in common is that achieving them requires us to act differently, not just now but in the future—but do we? Usually not.

Chart of percentages of adults that share a goal for the year: 71% plan to eat healthier, 65% want to exercise more, etc.

We say we’ll definitely eat healthier, spend less, and read more, and yet we tend not to do as we say. Why?

It’s certainly not for lack of knowledge. We all basically know how to eat right and save money. If we don’t, any gap in know-how can be filled with a quick Google search. And yet, information clearly isn’t enough. Why is it that despite knowing what we want and how to get it, we still don’t follow-through?

This question has perplexed deep thinkers for thousands of years. Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle had a word for the tendency to act against our best interests: akrasia—literally, “lack of mastery.” Our ongoing struggle with akrasia, some 2,500 years later, suggests it’s part of human nature.

We’ve seen that hypocrites fail to take their actions or values seriously, but closer inspection suggests that to some extent we all do.

A sad woman on her laptop, eating a sundae while thinking about her fitness and intellectual goals.

Our goals are based on our values; they are de facto attributes of the person we will be in the future. Someone might set a goal of exercising more because the person they want to become is physically fit, they decide to save money because the person they want to become is financially secure, or they may want to read more books because being well-read is an attribute they’d like to possess.

When we set a goal, we are making a commitment to a fictional person psychologists call, “future you.” Future you is the person who will have to actually do the things you promised your present self you would do. When you say you will exercise more often, save money, or read more, you are committing future you to fulfill a promise made by present you.

However, without a flux capacitor to travel back to the future, future you gets no say in the matter. When the time comes to actually hit the gym, cut spending, or read a book rather than scroll social media, future you often has other plans or just doesn’t wanna.

When future you doesn’t fulfill a promise made in the past, you are failing to take yourself and your word seriously—you said you’d do something, but you dismiss what you said. You don’t live up to your own commitment.

There’s no escaping akrasia, but there is hope of minimizing its impact and gaining greater mastery over ourselves. In my book, Indistractable, I describe the importance of living with personal integrity and the steps we can all take to strive to keep the commitments we make to ourselves.

Two people, representing present-you and future-you, each telling the other to do a task they’d prefer not to do themselves.

Distraction is any action that pulls us away from what we said we would do, away from our values, and away from the person we want to become. Becoming indistractable doesn’t mean we never slip up, but an indistractable person knows why they got distracted and can take steps to make sure the same thing doesn’t take them off track next time.

Occasionally failing to take our commitments seriously doesn’t automatically make us hypocrites. One hypocritical episode might not break the hull of our lives in half, but it can weaken it. Over time, those tiny cracks in our characters can add up. There are well-worn paths anyone can slip into that can turn good people into someone they’re not proud of. No one’s childhood dream is to be a cheat, a criminal, or a corrupt cop, and yet people end up being deceitful, delusional, or hypocrites. Over time, the sum of little hypocritical acts can become habits. By repeatedly acting like Dick, you can eventually become a Dick.

Dick wasn’t born morally deficient, and I don’t believe he was a bad person. He had simply learned that promising more than he could deliver was an effective way to get through life. Unfortunately, his penchant for hypocrisy limited his potential. He lost friends and business partners because he not only disrespected them, he disrespected himself.

The way we ensure we don’t become like Dick, habitually harming others and himself, is to start being honest with ourselves about the ways we fall short and taking more seriously the things we value: our time, our family, our friends, and, above all, our word. Though we all slip up from time to time, knowing our values and learning to hold ourselves accountable is the key to following through with personal integrity.