Why Scandals Are So Entertaining (and Hypocrisy So Infectious)

A particularly incisive passage from the fourth chapter of Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, in […]

David Zahl / 2.18.14

A particularly incisive passage from the fourth chapter of Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, in which he expounds on the universality of hypocrisy and the intoxication of self-righteousness:

tumblr_mhqxz1bQOs1qfv8d0o1_500There is a special pleasure in the irony of a moralist brought down for the very moral failings he has condemned. It’s the pleasure of a well-told joke. Some jokes are funny as one-liners, but most require three verses: three guys, say, who walk into a bar one at a time, or a priest, a minister and a rabbi in a lifeboat. The first two set the pattern, and the third violates it. With hypocrisy, the hypocrite’s preaching is the setup, the hypocritical action is the punch line. Scandal is great entertainment because it allows people to feel contempt, a moral emotion that gives feelings of moral superiority while asking nothing in return. With contempt you don’t need to right the wrong (as with anger) or flee the scene (as with fear or disgust). And best of all, contempt is made to share. Stories about the moral failings of others are among the most common kinds of gossip, they are a staple of talk radio, and they offer a ready way for people to show that they share a common moral orientation. Tell an acquaintance a cynical story that ends with both of you smirking and shaking your heads and voila, you’ve got a bond.

Well, stop smirking. One of the most universal pieces of advice from across cultures and eras is that we are all hypocrites, and in our condemnation of others’ hypocrisy we only compound our own. Social psychologists have recently isolated the mechanisms that makes us blind to the logs in our own eyes. The moral implications of these findings are disturbing; indeed, they challenge our greatest moral certainties. But the implications can be liberating, too, freeing you from destructive moralism and divisive self-righteousness…

Proving that people are selfish, or that they’ll sometimes cheat when they know they won’t be caught, seems like a good way to get an article into the Journal of Incredibly Obvious Results. What’s not so obvious is that, in nearly all these studies, people don’t think they are doing anything wrong. It’s the same in real life. From the person who cuts you off on the highway all the way to the Nazis who ran the concentration camps, most people think they are good people and that their actions are motivated by good reasons. Machiavellian tit for tat requires devotion to appearances, including protestations of one’s virtue even when one chooses vice. And such protestations are most effective when the person making them really believes them. As Robert Wright put it in his masterful book The Moral Animal, “Human beings are a species splendid in their array of moral equipment, tragic in their propensity to misuse it, and pathetic in their constitutional ignorance of the misuse.”

If Wright is correct about our “constitutional ignorance” of our hypocrisy, then the sages’ admonition to stop smirking may be no more effective than telling a depressed person to snap out of it. You can’t change your mental filters by willpower alone… Curing hypocrisy is much harder because part of the problem is that we don’t believe there’s a problem. We are well-armed for battle in a Machiavellian world of reputation manipulation, and one of our most important weapons is the delusion that we are non-combatants.