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March 21, 2021

Why Hypocrisy is a Myth—According to Neuroscience.

In social psychology, we refer to hypocrisy as “not practicing what you preach.” 

Although this is an oversimplification, attempting to adhere to the expectations of others or a moral code has been around for a while. 

For many, hypocrisy is the ultimate social taboo. It might also feel like an irreparable wound, especially if it’s from someone we thought we could trust.

Wikipedia says:

Hypocrisy is the practice of engaging in the same behavior or activity for which one criticizes another or the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform. In moral psychology, it is the failure to follow one’s own expressed moral rules and principles.”

It’s not living up to standards you set for others. It’s creating a set of moral rules and expecting others to live by them. It’s creating a moral high ground that we don’t have to take, yet puts us on a high enough pedestal that all we have left to do is to look down at those around us.

What digs us deeper into our own hypocrisy is either not seeing our own missteps or completely denying those missteps exist to then reinforce the idea that a whole self exists.

There is no such thing as a whole person.

It is much easier to blame others for their hypocrisy. However, this distracts from another glaringly obvious phenomenon that comes from the observer (the one doing the judging): 

What if their expectations of the other person who is much higher than humans are really capable of living? What if the hypocrite isn’t really the issue at all?

Culture can normalize a desire for perfection. It can normalize a desire for messiahs and utopia, making it easier to judge others when they don’t meet those expectations and simultaneously easier to forget we are implicated in the gaze. To observe hypocrisy in someone else is to realize it exists within us all.

We can’t be perfect all of the time.

What if the desire for perfection in others is a subconscious realization that we, too, can’t be perfect? We tend to want what we do not have. Even so, hypocrisy says a lot about what the culture at large desires—something or someone somewhere to save us from deep dark fears of inadequacy.

When we can’t find it in ourselves, we look to others. And when they fail us, we find ways to justify why they fail us. The dismal puritanical mythology of a perfect person haunts us because it just not true.

In behavioral science, one bias we rely upon that is directly connected to this myth of hypocrisy is known as the confirmation bias. It’s where we think we’re always right—and information, conversations, or others are wrong—especially when they don’t match up with our own beliefs. In fact, we tend to avoid anything that disproves our own biases. As you can already assume, this has been a problem in politics, education, and even in parenting.

Affective neuroscience and the psychology of identity agree that personality is meant to change. The notion that we praise someone who “sticks to their guns,” or “knows what they want,” or has “character” are all social myths we construct to deal with our existential desire to be more than we ever really need to be.

We believe our failings are who we are, mainly because we’ve created a world where failing is wrong. So, we had to invent a system that dealt with guilt and shame. That is why we believe hypocrisy exists…but, it really doesn’t. We’ve hypocrisy to a theory that we are meant to be who we say we are and stick to that and never change. This is an extremely Western concept. In some religious beliefs, the idea of self-existing is a misrecognition of a much wider context we are all a part of.

However, science also agrees that we are not hardwired to never change. Just the opposite, we are meant to be a state of constant flux. One research project showed that over a five-decade period, certain aspects of our personality change over time, and the parts that don’t are based on choice.

UCLA neuroscientist Matt Lieberman shows that there are two parts of the prefrontal cortex used for processing information salient to the human identity—the medial prefrontal cortex, or MPFC, and the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex, or DMPFC.

The MPFC is active during our default mode, or when we are not focused on the external environment, and biases us to shift our thinking to become egocentric, while the DMPFC is active when processing salient social information pertinent to one’s position in groups as well as the perspective of others.

We quite literally process thoughts about ourselves and thoughts about others in different parts of the brain. This is a reflection of the dynamic and cooperative nature of identity.

Another concept we deal with in the field of social psychology is referred to as self-coherence. This is simply stated, the idea that everything we do, from the choices we make to who we marry, is in line with who we think we are. Even on those days when we don’t live up to our own ideals, we invent reasons why the environment around us is at fault for why we didn’t live up to those self-imposed expectations.

Self-coherence is the attempt to assume we are whole human beings when in reality, both neuroscience and psychology would disagree. Self coherence is the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

As we have explored, the origins of this desire arise from within the cultural values embedded within us from childhood and normalized and solidified as we get older.

This is a problem because it ensures we get less and less open to change, growth, and development in all areas of our life. It also reinforces why we might think we are right for judging others for not doing the same.

The truth of the matter is, we all need to get better at being flexible, open, and in awe of the foibles, failures that really are just another name for learning and growth. Reframing these words could quite literally change everything—including ourselves.

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