August 25

Are We All Hypocrites? Why It’s Easier to Preach Than to Practice.

Hypocrites are those who apply to others the standards that they refuse to accept for themselves. Noam Chomsky.

Show, don’t tell

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekov.

If there is one advice every English teacher has given to their students, it is this: “Show, don’t tell”—a golden rule of writing. Show, don’t tell refers to a narrative technique that makes stories deeper and richer. Instead of factual telling, if the writer uses sensory details to describe the scene, it allows the reader to be in the room with the characters.

But like with most pithy expressions, Show, don’t tell is a phrase that isn’t applicable to writing alone. As psychologist and the originator of social cognitive theory, Albert Bandura, demonstrated through his Bobo doll experiments, children learn a lot through observation rather than instruction.

In the Bobo doll experiments, 3–6-year-old kids were placed in separate groups: one group observed adults exhibiting aggressive behavior towards an inflatable Bobo doll while another group watched adults quietly playing with toys while ignoring the doll.

The studies showed how children imitated and learned some of the adult behaviors. When left alone, those kids who watched physical and verbal aggression were also aggressive, while the group of kids who witnessed non-combative adults did not exhibit aggression towards the dolls when they were left alone in the room.

Visual learners

The experiments were a profound development in the field of psychology and came to be referred to as observational learning. The studies highlighted how we learn not just through reinforcements (reward and punishment), but also (and more so) through observation.

We are all visual learners because our brains process visual stimuli much quicker than texts (although the claim that we process visuals 60,000 faster than texts appears to be dubious).

Here’s the bottom-line: We can communicate our values better through action and demonstration, than we can through words and virtue-signals. But if we send contradictory messages, i.e., our actions don’t match our words, we risk losing our audience entirely. Because, at that point, we risk being labeled hypocrites.

And according to research, people dislike hypocrites more than they dislike liars.


What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say. R.W. Emerson.

Hypocrisy comes in many forms, but the worst is when a person criticizes another for a behavior that they themselves engage in. A true hypocrite is someone who passes critical moral judgment on others, while being far from perfect themselves.

The sex scandals that rocked the Catholic church are an example.

It’s not rare to find experiences of inexcusable behavior, especially among the rich and powerful. But when priests and other people of the clergy were found guilty of sexual abuse, our outrage was correspondingly outsized thanks to the blatant exhibition of hypocrisy: members of the church were breaching the very standards they chided others for not adhering to.

What makes us hypocrites?

Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits — Mark Twain

Notwithstanding the truly egomaniacal people who believe their job is to pass judgment on everyone, the vast majority of us exhibit a tamer, more benign version of hypocrisy. The short answer to what makes us hypocrites is that it’s much easier to see others’ flaws than it is to see our own, for two primary reasons:

  • The Dunning Kruger effect, which explains how some people have an inflated sense of ability because they don’t know better or cannot recognize their own ignorance.
  • Our less than ideal self-awareness. We take ourselves too seriously because we have no way of knowing what we don’t know, but aren’t clever enough to even know there is a gap.

But what are the consequences of preaching one thing and practicing another?

Why are we so bothered by hypocrites?

Let him, who is without sin, cast the first stone. Jesus Christ.

In the article, The real problem with hypocrisy published in the NY Times, researcher Jillian Jordan and her team describe “the real reason” why people dislike hypocrites: “their outspoken moralizing falsely signals their own virtue.”

Interestingly, the researchers make an important distinction.

We aren’t bothered much when we see non-signaling hypocrites—people who believe in a virtuous cause, but admit they are flawed themselves, which I believe is the category most of us fall under.

But, still the label hypocrite can be hard to shake off once it is assigned. It’s almost like once someone compromises a moral stance they’ve taken, they are barred from saying anymore on the subject, even if they never claimed high moral ground themselves. This makes it even more important to know that it’s okay to preach, as long as we make it abundantly clear that we, like everyone else, are struggling to practice the preaching.

How do we combat self-hypocrisy?

The ubiquitous nature of hypocrisy means we are all hypocrites in some form or the other, but most of us are in denial.

The phrase “Do as I say, not as I do” serves as a reminder of the intricate dance between ideals and reality, intentions, and actions.

Spending time creating memes about our social media break doesn’t just result in cognitive dissonance—we run the risk of being labeled hypocrites.

A little self-reflection and humility can go a long way in aligning our intentions and actions.

As a recovering hypocrite, I realize the glaring difference between my walk and talk, especially as a parent. Every time I ask my teen to use a respectful tone, while yelling at her myself, or berating her for screen time while I’m still doomscrolling are moments rich in irony. I’m trying to cultivate more mindfulness and self-awareness to recognize, and maybe even laugh a little at these ironic moments.

So, the next time you find your fridge mysteriously stocking itself up with ice-cream while you proselytize the benefits of a healthy diet, remind yourself that it’s time to make a choice. Which one do you love more—the ice-cream or the lecturing? Saying yes to both means saying yes to hypocrisy.



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