How Our Emotions Shape Moral Hypocrisy

April 18, 2012

by Robin Tricoles 

You're breezing down the freeway on a sunny Saturday afternoon when a shiny little sports car passes you, on the right, no less. Outrageous, you think. The nerve.

Two days later, you're running late for your Monday morning meeting with the big cheese. The dog made a break for it while fetching the morning paper, and the baby decided to spit up on your blazer. After catching up with the pup, changing clothes, and grabbing a cup of coffee, you head to work, speeding down the freeway one eye on your watch the other on the road. You arrive safely and on time. You congratulate yourself. Moral hypocrisy? You bet.

And that's just what social psychologist Evan Polman studies—moral hypocrisy, the tendency to judge others more harshly than we judge ourselves. Although researchers have studied moral hypocrisy through the lens of disgust, Polman's work is unique. He and Cornell University graduate student Rachel Ruttan looked at moral hypocrisy as it relates to three emotions: anger, guilt, and envy. What they found is that each emotion acts in a distinct and sometimes surprising way.

When it comes to anger, the researchers found that moral hypocrisy increased. That is, when we're angry we judge others more harshly than we judge ourselves while cutting ourselves slack for transgressions. Anger, says Polman, increases the gap between our moral behavior and the standards we hold others to.

And when it comes to guilt, the researchers found that moral hypocrisy decreases. After doing something unethical, the standards we hold others to remain stable, but our behavior changes. We behave more morally. We take others' feelings and welfare into account.

"When people feel guilty they behave more prosocially because they feel bad, or they're trying to cleanse themselves of what they've done," says Polman. "They want to rectify it."

Evan Polman Quote.jpgBut envy, our desire for something that someone else possesses, be it wealth, opportunity, or integrity, is more complex. Polman and Ruttan found envy decreases moral hypocrisy in two distinct ways. The first involves admiration. That is, if we respect and admire someone we envy, it can motivate us to behave more morally and hold ourselves to higher standards than we otherwise would. It can even motivate us to work harder to achieve what we desire. What's more, when we admire and envy someone we're more apt to overlook his or her transgressions. The combination of these phenomena lowers moral hypocrisy.

However, envy also can lead us to feel inferior to others and to verbally belittle them, which is known as leveling down, a form of dishonesty and unethical behavior. At the same time, the envious person doubts that those they envy are capable of behaving morally. So, both the envious person's moral behavior is diminished, and so is their expectations of others. As a result moral hypocrisy is lowered.

"We were pretty surprised that people relaxed their standards of others when they felt envious of them," says Polman. But, he cautions, this might not occur in all cases. "In some cases, if people feel envious and want what others have, they still may take on the more negative side of envy and judge people more harshly."

Polman hopes future research will look at the motivation underlying specific emotion affecting moral hypocrisy. After all, moral behavior is costly, self-interest less so. Yet, people go to a lot of trouble to appear moral depending on which emotion is at play. What Polman wants to know is why.


Evan Polman is a visiting assistant professor of Management and Organizations at New York University. The Society for Judgment and Decision Making awarded him the Hillel Einhorn New Investigator Award in 2009. His research has been published in several scholarly journals including the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Polman’s work has also been featured in the Wall Street Journal and Scientific American Mind.

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