On Exposing Hypocrisy

Imagine that you are a kid, and that you recently acquired a new friend who likes to come over to your house to play. You’ve started to notice that he pays a lot of attention to your sister when he visits, that he likes to visit when she is home, that he likes to play in the house near where she is at the time. You suspect that he has a crush on your sister, and that is why he recently became your friend.

This is a case of hypocrisy, where X is less about the Y that it seems about, but is instead more about Z. Here X is your new friendship, Y is his liking to spent time with you, and Z is his wanting to get closer to your sister. Of course Y is probably true to some extent, though not as much as he’d led you to believe.

Now consider some possible responses to this situation:

  1. Nothing: Do and say nothing; pretend you don’t notice.
  2. Private support: tell him privately about your suspicions, but make sure he understands that you will fully support his efforts, and that you don’t hold any grudge.
  3. Private confrontation: tell him privately about your suspicions. Act mildly offended.
  4. Public exposure: speak loud and clearly, in front of all his friends, as well as your sister, giving evidence of his hypocrisy. Act deeply offended.
  5. Indirect private confrontation: have a mutual friend tell him that his behavior seems suspicious. This mutual friend isn’t offended, and promises not to keep it quiet. But they were wondering, that’s all.

What if you like this person, and so want him to act more like a real friend. Which of the above responses are most likely to turn his hypocrisy, in pretending to do Y while really doing Z, into sincerity, i.e., really doing mainly Y?

In this case #4 is probably the absolute worst approach, and #3 probably isn’t that much better. #2 may usually have good outcomes, but even that risks him feeling embarrassed and avoiding you. #5 is a little safer, but even that could spook him. I’d say #1 is probably the safest: just do nothing.

Consider this as a metaphor for exposing hypocrisy more generally. Sometimes exposing hypocrisy, or confronting the hypocrites, can shame them into actually doing what they say they are doing. But at other times it scares them away, so that they do even less of what they said they were doing.

For example, people pretend to learn at school, but more plausibly they meet mates and signal their features. If this hypocrisy were made clear, would people actually learn more, or would they switch to other ways to meet mates and signal features? People also pretend to give to charity because they want to help, but more plausibly they want to bond with associates and to signal their gentle natures. If their hypocrisy were made more visible, would they try to be more effective at helping with their charity, or would they switch to other ways to associate and signal gentleness?

Consider this a partial answer to Ryan Carey’s request for criticism of effective altruism. A community associated with that label says it wants to promote charity as helping, and it points out how common charity patterns often fall far short of that goal. And if main cause of falling short were ignorance or laziness, this should induce a lot more helping. But if the main cause is instead hypocrisy, then what they are mainly doing is exposing hypocrisy.

And yes, for some people exposing their hypocrisy will shame them into more effectively doing what they had been pretending to do. But for others it may embarrass them into doing less. Maybe they will be more forthright about bonding and showing gentleness in other ways. I don’t actually know which it will be on net. But I do know that we should study hypocrisy more carefully, in order to better position ourselves to answer such questions.

Added 8a: People vary in their gentleness both via immediate system one reactions, and via more considered system two reactions. If people are more interested in signaling their system one gentleness, and if effective charity choices are those that look better to system two, then effective choices can be in conflict with their signaling desires.

For example, in the standard trolley problem people say they would divert the trolley to kill one person on the tracks to save five on other tracks, but would not push one person off a footbridge to achieve the same savings. Pressuring people to admit that pushing in the trolley problem is effective altruism is getting them to resist their system one inclinations, and if they succeed at that they may look less good to associates in terms of system one gentleness.

Added 10a: Sebastian Nickel reminds me of this study showing:

Large prior donors increase the likelihood of giving in response to information on aid effectiveness, whereas small prior donors decrease their giving.

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  • Friendly-HI

    Interesting post. By extension a response to being confronted with ones hypocricy when it comes to signaling may be to exhibit less signaling behavior and divert more resources to other pleasures entirely instead of ever more sophisticated attempts at signaling. At least I feel that’s what I’ve increasingly been doing ever since I became more aware of my own signaling behavior. Sometimes I catch myself preparing a signaling attempt or response and then I internally ask myself “why bother?” and depending how I feel about that question I actually don’t bother sometimes.

  • Phil

    Sometimes you WANT them to switch to other behaviors. What’s the best response then?

  • TaymonBeal

    Is the goal to get people to actually care about doing as much good as possible? I don’t see that as a requirement; if we can get people who just want to look good in front of themselves or others to do so by donating to effective charities, then mission accomplished. If it becomes widely recognized that some charities are a lot more effective than others (and which ones these are), then those who give to charity for signaling reasons will give to effective charities instead of ineffective ones.

    • But charities that are more effective at helping may be less effective as signals. See my added to the post.

      • UWIR

        The question then becomes whether the added charity giving due to promoting another terminal value is greater than the inefficiency due to people pursuing that value at the detriment to charity.

  • tunesmith

    This doesn’t really line up with the definition of hypocrisy that I’m used to. I’ve always seen hypocrisy as advocating a certain value and yet acting counter to that value. In other words, if a value logically entails a certain action, then it would be hypocritical to take a counteraction while simultaneously advocating that value, because it would be impossible for the person to take that action while believing in that value.

    What you’re describing is more akin to having a hidden agenda that may not *directly* conflict with the more public goal, but just make it less efficient. That doesn’t seem the same as hypocrisy. The difference is that someone with an agenda still believes in X, while a hypocrite doesn’t.

    And given that, I don’t see as much risk in talking openly and honestly (if sensitively) about how to more effectively and efficiently engage in altruism. If someone truly does have the goal of X even while engaging in an unhelpful Y, then they should be more receptive to changing their Y if it increases X.

    • UWIR

      The most charitable description of this post is that Hanson seems to have an idiolect vastly different from mine (and yours). More bluntly: what the fuck? Hanson’s use of the word “hypocrisy” is so bizarre that I don’t see any common ground for discussion. In the standard meaning, hypocrisy is bad because one is claiming a right for oneself that one is not extending to others. With Hanson’s (to the extent that I understand it), this moral issue does not exist, so Hanson’s assumption that his audience will simply take it granted that some sort of response to Hanson!hypocrisy is needed is not valid. I don’t see anything morally wrong with Hanson!hypocrisy, and the only reason to address it would be either for efficiency gains or to take advantage of someone else’s weakness.

      Going through the options, I don’t see how 3 or 4 are reasonable responses to Hanson!hypocrisy, and in fact 4 seems like a real dick move. 5 might be an improvement over 2 (assuming the “not” is unintended) if it reduces awkwardness. Given social norms, 1 might be the best, but if you think that your friend would gain utility from knowing that he doesn’t have to conceal his intentions from you, 2 might be the best.

    • This doesn’t really line up with the definition of hypocrisy that I’m used to.

      Hair splitting.

  • Robert Koslover

    I think a great deal of what we do is determined by peer pressure. Humans are, most of the time, basically herd animals. And I assert that it’s not just hypocrisy that is in evidence here; we actually modify our own internal beliefs and values, without even noticing we are doing so, merely so can better fit in with the beliefs and actions of the rest of the herd. As they say, “when in Rome…”


    What’s the point of trying to shame someone into behaving more like a real friend or a real altruist (let’s define “real” as someone who genuinely enjoys being your friend or donating to charity, even when anonymous)? You’ll still know it’s fake and unreliable. Unless of course it’s one of those cases where you can truly change their personality.

    • John Swanson

      Because effective altruism claims that certain charities are thousands of times as effective as others, and even if those we end up convincing are “unreliable” (“fake” doesn’t seem to matter) transferring even 5% of their lifetime giving to the effective charities will sextuple the benefits.

      • IMASBA

        Why would you need to “expose hypocrisy” in order to get people to donate to more effective charities? Can’t you just tell them that those charities are more effective? If those charities are less high profile people can boast about having discovered a more effective charity and before you know it that charity will become high profile.

      • IMASBA

        P.S. “Fake” matters in the friendship example.

  • UWIR

    “This mutual friend isn’t offended, and promises not to keep it quiet. – See more at: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2015/01/on-exposing-hypocrisy.html#disqus_thread

    I assume the “not” is unintended? Also, fuck Tynt.


    “For example, people pretend to learn at school, but more plausibly they meet mates and signal their features”

    Where did you go to school? When I was in school many pupils made it abundantly clear they were mostly there because it was the law, their friends were there too and they needed the diploma. The few people who said they also were there to learn actually were, (it’s very hard to learn calculus without a teacher, impossible even with the discipline levels of a teenager).

  • John Swanson

    What does ordinary charity signal, and are we confident that EA is (and will remain) a worse signal for that?

    I’d make a historical comparison. Businesses didn’t always have strict account principles. An outside observer might say “this is hypocrisy: people pretend business is about productivity, but the lack of strict accounting demonstrates that business is *actually* about building and maintaining coalitions to develop and apply power–productivity is just a signal for your ability to do that.”

    Identifying this hypocrisy *might* lead people to move their struggles for status away from business, instead of leading businesses to adopt strict accounting principles.

    But what eventually happened is that (by being more productive) companies that adopted accounting principles were more capable of signaling power and political ability for their leaders than the others. In other words, pointing out hypocrisy is always uncomfortable initially–but if accepting the criticism makes the organization better at accomplishing its “real goal,” the critic wins.

    EA’s a fairly young movement, but this is an important question to ask: will EA ever be able to signal “associate bonding” and “gentle nature” better than its competitors?

    It looks to me like, as a tool for signaling “gentle nature,” it’s already doing quite well and I don’t see any reason to expect it to do worse than traditional charity. I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “associate bonding”–are you referring to “helping the in-group” or “working with high-status people”? Both seem to be important functions of charity. Regarding the former, I agree–by its nature, EA is never going to be able to signal that someone cares about *local* people as well as, say, Toys for Tots or local food banks. The latter is also an issue: certain forms of “charity” (patronage of the arts, for example) are going to have a huge advantage here.

    But one other issue comes to mind here: there are a huge number of charities, and they seem to signal a wide range of traits. Planned Parenthood to the Susan G. Komen Foundation to local philharmonic societies to the Alzheimer’s Association to Doctors Without Borders. The range of signals sent by charitable donations seems quite large: Doctors Without Borders is worse at signaling that you care about people in your town, while philharmonic societies are worse at signaling that you care about the poor, for example.

    To compete successfully in the market for charity, EA doesn’t need to beat everyone–its goals give it a clear market advantage for signaling certain things, and disadvantages for signaling others. Maybe EA should tone down its criticisms of charities that aren’t competing for its niche (e.g. the “Buy a Brushstroke” campaign mentioned here is *clearly* signaling totally different things than the AMF or SCI) and work harder at proving itself in the relatively narrow field of “charities that signal ‘global’ compassion” or “charities that signal sympathy for sick children.”

    • We are confident that businesses will continue to exist, as the economy has a huge niche there that must be filled. We are less confident that charities must continue – the economy could function without those.

      • Tige Gibson

        Charities wouldn’t disappear unless something replaced them or eliminated the need for them. Effective government is a possibility for that. It’s unfortunate that libertarians pretend to be trying to overcome their bias while assuming charity is as utterly unnecessary as government.

      • John Swanson

        This is absurd and I probably shouldn’t even respond but: Robin clearly meant “it is possible to have a functioning economy without charity” not “poor people don’t need charity,” which would be completely tangential to his argument.

      • libertarians pretend to be trying to overcome their bias while assuming charity is as utterly unnecessary as government

        Hanson is concerned that efficient-charity propaganda might undermine charity. You’ve got him wrong.

      • Tige Gibson

        I apologize if I interpreted you incorrectly, but I don’t see how “business must exist” and “charities – the economy could function without those” can both be held together with a proper understanding of how economies work, let alone human nature which economics is dependent upon.

        Business and charity seem far apart in motive, but they are similar at the transaction level. Virtually any exchange between unequal parties will be viewed as charitable. Charity is derived from a desire to balance inequality. Any business relationship which took advantage of inequality would not last.

        If you have such a negative view of human nature that you feel people only perform charity to disguise their hypocrisy, you really don’t understand human nature at all.

      • If you have such a negative view of human nature that you feel people only perform charity to disguise their hypocrisy, you really don’t understand human nature at all.

        For what it’s worth, from your various comments, I think you don’t.

        What I wonder (but perhaps have no right to inquire about) is what leaves you so certain that you correctly understand human nature.

      • UWIR

        You quote RobinHanson speaking of charity in the countable sense, but none of your post speaks of charity in any but the uncountable sense. Countable!charity and uncountable!charity, while being very close in concept space, are completely different words, and your failure to recognize the difference suggests that you lack sufficient understanding of the words to have a productive discussion involving them.

    • For the uninitiated, what does EA denote please?

      • Peter David Jones

        Ethical Altruism

      • John Swanson

        Er, effective altruism 🙂

      • Cheers!

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  • Comes now Robin Hanson, whose mission is to overcome bias by exposing hypocrisy, decrying … the exposure of hypocrisy!

    Exposure of hypocrisy is good because truth is good. What is questionable is shaming. Even if subtle, it is perceived as aggression, which it usually is. It isn’t something nice people do to their friends, so shamers often seek high moral justification.

    • Tige Gibson

      How is feeling shame different from feeling offended? What people really need to learn is how to control their own emotions or someone else will control them for you.

      • I don’t think I see your point, inasmuch as we don’t go around deliberately giving offense.

        [Strong people ought not manipulate the weak.]

      • Tige Gibson

        Rarely is offense taken from someone intentionally given, it’s purely internally generated emotional state. It’s the same with shame. People rarely feel shame because someone wanted them to.

        As ideal as it would be for people not to manipulate each other, learning to govern your own emotions so you don’t get offended or feel shame every time someone says something will help you avoid being manipulated.

        What is shameful or offensive should not be defined for you by someone else.

      • People rarely feel shame because someone wanted them to.

        I think that’s naively wrong, utterly wrong.

        [My guess is that you consider only the most conscious efforts to induce shame, which produce reactance (but these too are often successful). But much shame induction is based on unconscious motives, and that’s much more successful. Why do you think the charity do-gooders indulge in attempted shame induction (or are you blind to their underlying motives).]

      • UWIR

        “Rarely is offense taken from someone intentionally given, it’s purely internally generated emotional state.”

        Perhaps it is rare that a person has giving offense as the direct, conscious goal, but I think that it is quite common for the intent to be one that is offensive. For instance, when people recite the pledge of allegiance, I don’t think that most of them are consciously saying “I think we should engage in this practice to show offense to atheists”. But the pledge of allegiance expresses the sentiment that theists are privileged above atheists. This is an offensive sentiment. It’s not a “purely internally generated emotional state”. When atheists say “that’s offensive”, they are not merely reacting to an internal emotional state, they are commenting on an objective state of being relegated to inferior status. And whether they’ve really thought through it completely, the people reciting the pledge of allegiance do intend to communicate to the atheists that they are inferior. I cannot think of any reason given for the pledge that does not come down to that. And telling atheists that they should just “learn to govern your own emotions” is insensitive. Emotions are a form of cognition. When someone is offended, that means they are detecting a threat. The proper response to that is not to say “learn to not detect threats”, it’s “is that detection of threat valid, and if so, what should be done about that threat?”

        “People rarely feel shame because someone wanted them to.”

        Shame is a social phenomenon. To feel ashamed is to feel that one’s social status is threatened. Social status has been a crucial resource for our ancestors for millions of years. A million years ago, our ancestors worried about their social status, and social norms were enforced by appealing to that worry. An action that threatened the group could be deterred by threats of taking away social status. Our ancestors did not consciously think “I can deter people from stealing my food by threatening to shame them if they do”. They developed instinctual ways of threatening social status, and of detecting threats. Shame is something that “happens”. People don’t generally plan it out, they just follow their instincts, and those instincts result in shame.Their conscious minds aren’t deciding to make someone ashamed, but their primate brain is intending shame.

    • anon

      Exposure of hypocrisy is not about exposing hypocrisy. Maybe Robin Hanson and effective-altruism advocates both secretly care about subtly shaming others!

    • UWIR

      “Exposure of hypocrisy is good because truth is good.”

      How is truth always good? If sharing information will cause harm, should it be shared just out of some abstract concern for “truth”?

  • GC

    In person, particularly with close friends and family, I avoid discussion of charity. There’s a chance people would like the idea of EA and it would be helpful for me to bring it up, but it’s also likely that they’d feel bad about not giving enough or not giving “correctly”, and that sort of bad-feeling doesn’t often lead people to anything but inactive guilt/anxiety. However, I’m somewhat active in promoting effective charity online. There’s the same risks, but I feel if someone is uncomfortable online they can just not read what I have to say. It’s less of a negative coercion on my part as an anonymous stranger to them.

  • lemmycaution

    My pet theory is that the new testament’s treatment of hypocrisy has strongly affected how people view hypocrisy and the new testaments treatment of hypocrisy is meant to answer the question “If jesus is God, why didn’t he tell anyone?”:

    “They told Him, saying, “John the Baptist; and others say Elijah; but others, one of the prophets.” And He continued by questioning them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered and said to Him, “You are the Christ.” And He warned them to tell no one about Him.”

    Basically any public proclamation/display of goodness/godliness becomes suspect. That wasn’t the way Jesus did it.

    This widens the scope of hypocrisy from the universal disdain for those who say one thing and do the opposite which existed well before the new testament. This new widened scope of hypocricy is problematic when applied to public altruism. If you give a million dollars to fight cancer, you are highly unlikely to secretly be pro-cancer. You will likely have additional non-altruistic motivations though.

  • Taryn East

    Choosing option 1 only works if you are ok with Z happening. If Z is of strong negative utility… then neither option 1 or 2 are acceptable.

  • UWIR

    “Large prior donors increase the likelihood of giving in response to information on aid effectiveness, – See more at: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2015/01/on-exposing-hypocrisy.html#disqus_thread

    The word “prior” is an adjective that has been pressed into service as a noun, as a shortened form of the phrase “prior confidence level”. I presume that in this case, the phrase “large prior” is being used as a noun modifier. This conflicts with the natural reading of the sentence, in which “prior” is an adjective modifying “donors”. Clearer phrasing would be “donors with large priors”.

  • Ernie Garrett

    “People pretend to learn at school.” This isn’t a phenomenon I’ve observed. Students go to school to avoid punishment or failing to live up to social standards, not to try to deceive others into believing they’re learning. Their body language and statements show this totally, such as “I’m so dead if I fail this test.” There isn’t an attempt to deceive about their motivations.

    High School students I’ve observed make it very obvious whether they want to be there and why, and I find the same to be true at college.

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