Spotting Hypocrisy in Your Own Life

Jon Hawkins

How to tell if you’re holding yourself to a double-standard.

Spotting other people's faults and downfalls is fairly straightforward. As we look upon others' actions, we can adopt an objective perspective, free from any biases. With this additional knowledge, it’s easy to “see things clearly.”

It’s this impartial attitude that I carry when researching and writing. I often tell my readers how they could or should live. Like me, I’m sure you consider yourself good at spotting others' mistakes — and are keen to help them where you can.

What’s ironic, is that either knowingly or unknowingly, a lot of us fail to practice the words we preach. We can help others become their best self, but fail to follow that very same guidance. Why? This typically happens for one of two reasons:

  1. Each of us carries a set of biases about ourselves, and they affect the person we see in the mirror. They might leave you oblivious to your shortcomings. Worse still, a lot of us let our emotions get the better of us — and in a state of anger or upset, do counterproductive things without realizing it.
  2. If we do know about our shortcomings, we make exceptions and excuses for ourselves. As if we’re something special, we tell ourselves “it doesn’t matter if I do it, I’m just one person!”

Some of us are unknowing hypocrites. We tell others to eat healthily, to recycle, and to isolate indoors during a pandemic — but then do the complete opposite.

Why does this happen? And how do we identify when we’re doing so?

“The only vice that cannot be forgiven is hypocrisy. The repentance of a hypocrite is itself hypocrisy.” — William Hazlitt

The Kantian Universal Law

Whenever I think about what is right or wrong, or how others should live — I revert back to Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative. This imperative offers several ways that you can identify whether an action is morally right or wrong.

One of them being his universal Law which states that, when committing an action, you should consider the maxim (ie. motivation or rule) attached to it, and ask yourself: can I will this action as a universal law?

By “universal law,” Kant asks us to imagine that everyone on planet earth performed that action simultaneously, at the same time. Would you (or a rational person) want a world like this? If your answer is “no,” then the action you’re performing is morally impermissible and shouldn’t be performed. Such a conclusion either comes about because of:

  1. A contradiction of conception. That is, it’s logically impossible for everyone to perform it. Consider the action of “killing someone.” If everyone did this simultaneously, then we would all be dead. There would be nobody to kill, and no one to perform the action.
  2. A contradiction of the will. This occurs when you perform an action that it's logically possible to will as a universal law — but no rational person would want everyone to perform it. Consider, for example, dodging your taxes: if everyone did so — government schemes would be underfunded and your quality of life would be much worse.

In committing actions that you cannot will as a universal law, you are making an exception for yourself. You admit that it’s unwise for everyone to perform the action, but you don't mind committing to it. It’s the ultimate hypocrisy. You aren’t special, and there is no morally justifiable reason for making such an exception.

“Live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law.” — Immanuel Kant

A Psychological Guide to Hypocritical Justification

Alongside this historic account of moral hypocrisy, research undergone by Psychologist Jesse Graham (The University of Southern California) indicates that hypocrisy comes in many different forms They define it as:

“Break[ing] from your own moral standard, [regardless of ] whether you state it publicly or not.”

This behavior is exemplified in forms like:

  • Moral duplicity: occurs when someone claims their action is above judgment — or they try and convince you their actions aren’t wrong by justifying them.
  • Moral double standards: when people are more sympathetic to themselves than other people when performing immoral acts. For example, you might get angry at drivers who don’t stop for you at a cross-road, but when you’re driving in a rush you see no harm in doing the same.
  • Moral weakness: when our behavior conflicts with our attitudes or values. Consider, for example, an advocate of vegetarianism who can’t help but eat meat.

Like the Kantian example, it’s pretty obvious why these examples would make us a hypocrite. We act like we’re above our own moral standards: claiming to adhere to a set of principles, but failing to act in a way consistent to them

And that doesn’t quite feel right.

Do Honest People Lie?

To test their findings, Graham et al (2015) underwent a study to assess whether people acted in accordance with their values.

They asked several short questions to a large sample size of online users — specifically focusing on what they believed in, and what recent actions made them feel guilty.

The majority valued traits of honesty, care, fairness, and loyalty. Yet it was these people that were most likely to act against those values. They were dishonest, lied to their friends' ones, and frequently felt guilty about doing so.

Their findings indicate that you’re likely to act against your own principles and values. In fact, you’re more likely to do so than anyone else.

The irony.

Tackling Hypocrisy

So you finally admit it. You’re an unknowing hypocrite. Now what? Are you doomed to be one forever?

According to social psychologist Daniel R. Stalder, there are a few things you can do to combat this counterproductive trait. On his account, you can avoid your double-standard by:

Taking Back Your Inconsistencies

Use personal reflections to identify when you’re acting against your principles. Where you can, correct them at that moment. Stadler gives an example: “If you threw an aluminum can in the garbage, go back in there and get it and then find a recycling bin.”

Vowing to Do Better

If you can’t correct your contradiction, at least acknowledge your mistake and vow to do better. There’s still time for you to set this right. In Stadler’s words: “If you failed to follow your own New Year’s resolution in January, strive to improve in February.”

Admitting Being Wrong

In the words of Nikki Giovanni: “Mistakes are a fact of life. It is the response to the error that counts.”

Being able to openly admit that you’re wrong reveals a lot about your character. Better still, publicly admitting your mistakes makes you less likely to re-offend. Especially when others around you are holding you accountable.

Move On

Rather than dwelling on our mistakes, after doing everything we can do set things right — we should just move. In doing so, we can affirm our own positive future, rather than dwelling on a negative past.

Of course, you might find difficulty in identifying your hypocritical actions. Oprah, for example, refers to our “emotional blind spots” — the biases and preconceptions we have about ourselves impact how we perceive ourselves. For that reason, identifying the contradictions in our principles can be difficult to spot.

If you’re struggling to spot your flaws, ask for feedback from others. They have a more objective view of your actions: free from biases and preconceptions — and could be crucial in your personal development.

After all, the first step in avoiding this action is admitting that you’re a hypocrite who wants to change.

“Sincerity makes the very least person to be of more value than the most talented hypocrite” — Charles Spurgeon

I write about Self-Improvement, Life Lessons, Philosophy, Psychology & Business — to help you reach your full potential. To stay in touch, and to receive free and exclusive content, sign up to my mailing list.

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Asking questions, seeking answers. I write articles that help you better understand the Universe. Durham University.


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