Naked Hypocrisy

In our society (as in most) we cover our genitals (& female breasts) with clothes, and usually talk and act as if they did not exist. At some level we know they exist, that they may be sexually aroused, and that if exposed others might better see our arousal and become aroused or disgusted. But it is usually considered extremely rude to expose one’s or another’s genitals, or to explicitly discuss their arousal.

Folks who violate such norms usually send bad signals, e.g., of their lack of awareness of social norms, their lack of self-control, and their low opinion of the sexually selectivity of others. If a small child were to expose their or another’s genitals, the social norm is to quickly get them to stop, perhaps make a quick smirk or joke, and then change the subject.  It is not so much that we don’t know we all know that genitals exist, can be aroused, or can induce arousal, as that we know pursing the subject looks bad.

This seems to me a helpful metaphor for understanding how people react to factoids that expose our hypocrisies. Consider common reactions to hearing that:

  • medicine has little correlation with health
  • few show much interest in medicine quality
  • police internal affairs report to police chiefs
  • college graduates rarely use what they learn
  • moral philosophers are not more moral
  • managed funds on average lose money
  • few give much to foreign or future poor
  • voters dislike politicians committed to promises

Most folks either grab at flimsy excuses to deny or excuse such things, or express mild polite interest and then change the subject.  They don’t want to act like the subject bothers them, but they also don’t want to pursue it.  Only oddballs excitedly plan how to fix such things, or analyze the exposed hypocrisies without making clear they don’t apply to present company. Socially savvy folks know that exposed hypocrisies, like exposed genitals, are usually best ignored.

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  • scott clark

    Of course this post should have been titled Naked Hypocrisy. But now the question must be answered, Is hypocrisy sexually arousing?

  • scott, it should have been, and now it is. 🙂

  • Steve Reilly

    “moral philosophers are not more moral”

    Do most folks really excuse or deny this? I’d imagine most people consider moral philosophers, or for that matter all philosophers, to be engaged in a matter of no consequence whatsoever. Saying that moral philosophers are no more moral than the rest of us would be more likely to get a nod of agreement than a denial or an excuse.

  • Popeye

    I don’t know, occasionally I comment here to remark that “overcoming bias” isn’t really about overcoming bias, and generally I’m met with silence. Now I’m supposed to think that I’m like some old man who likes to flash people on the subway? Hmm.

  • @popeye – I usually take the blog title to mean overcoming cognitive biases which results in flawed/irrational thinking. Part of rational thinking is to face your biases/preferences and learn how to achieve them or improve them (but not necessarily “overcome”)

    • Popeye

      But I don’t see Robin confronting his own biases; I see him confronting the biases of others.

  • Tribsantos

    I think that, if you’re studying a behavior phenomenon, using a less loaded word than “hypocrisy” would better serve your case. It is good not to fall on the freudian and marxist trap of becoming ever more convinced of one’s thesis if people agree or if people disagree. People may genuineley not understand what you’re saying; you can even be wrong. But, mostly, even if people do behave in ways that are more egotistical than what they say do, that may not be hypocrisy. I think that hypocrisy must be a conscious decision of saying one thing and doing another. If the person doesn’t realize it, he isn’t being really hypocritical.
    On the “giving for the future generations”, I’d really like if you’d comment on the problem of the Golden Rule savings rate

    • david

      Yeah, the overwhelming certainty that everyone who disagrees is simply clinging to flimsy excuses out of denial gets a little annoying.

  • I should know this already, but what’s the argument for thinking donating to future poor should be as important as donating to foreign poor? The asymmetry seems to be this: in both cases, you can say, “oh, the free market helps everyone in the long run, so just by participating in the free market, I’m indirectly helping others.” The difference is that with present foreign poor, this isn’t helpful “right when they need it” (the present) where as with future poor, this will be helpful “right when they need it” (the future). Indeed, for people in the future, technological innovations are one of the best gifts we can bequeath them, better arguably than compound interests on investments, since enough innovation will give you things cheaply that no amount of money can buy. Furthermore, innovations will happen just by us pursuing our needs now.

    Of course, we could try to put money into innovations that don’t help us, but will help people in the future. There’s a problem with this, though, which comes from another asymmetry between helping future folks and helping foreign folks: we can study the effectiveness of interventions to help foreigners. A lot of foreign interventions don’t work so well, but we also know how to save a life reliably for a few thousand dollars. With future folks, though, it’s very hard to guess what innovations will help them most.

  • Anonymous to avoid Fatwas

    Here’s just a few more that people don’t like to talk about:

    Socialism always fail to deliver prosperous societies, regardless of whether its leaders are geniuses, philanthopists, economists, or (and far too often) brutal mass-murderers. A socialist government simply “runs out of other people’s money.”

    More people have been murdered, starved, or otherwise brutalized by Communism than Nazism. The western world considers Nazism synonymous with evil, but there is no shortage of people who openly admire Communism. Mao alone (not to mention Stalin) murdered more people than Hitler, but he remains revered by many around the world and even in America’s halls of academia.

    Che Guevara was a mass-murdering communist revolutionary, not some swell guy you might invite over to your house for dinner. So he certainly doesn’t belong on T-shirts worn by honorable human beings.

    Fundamentalist Islam is fundamentally different from all other major religions, specifically in the fact that it refuses to peacefully coexist with any other religion. Fundamental Islam is (fundamentally) a religion of war, more so by far than any other religion. Peaceful muslims (of which there are many, thank goodness) who befriend and/or treat non-muslims honestly and as equals — all without plotting to forcibly convert, conquer, or enslave them — are actually in direct violation of the most basic religious teachings in Islam’s most holy book (the Koran).

    Islamic terrorist groups like Hamas and Hizbollah actually have no interest in the tiny amount of land in Israel. Their near-term goal is simply to kill Jews for the glory of Allah. This is actually in the Hamas charter, which remains fully in effect, but everyone pretends that it isn’t to be taken seriously. Palestinians knowingly elected these genocidal murderers as their leaders in Gaza, but we pretend that they are entirely victims and only want peace and coexistence. These same people danced in the streets and handed out candy on 9/11/2001, but we continue to pretend that all they really want is a tiny bit of Israeli land, and not actually to kill and/or subjugate all infidels, everywhere.

    • Tyrrell McAllister

      Here’s just a few more that people don’t like to talk about:

      Setting aside the truth of falsity of your claims, there is no shortage of people who love to make them. Do you yourself recall ever feeling any serious internal discomfort when you first contemplated these assertions? Or did you rather feel a glorious sense that you were staring the truth in its face, thereby proving your superiority over those who fail to embrace these claims? Do you believe that you were particularly unique in your highly positive affective response to this view of the world? Do you worry that the positive sensation of rehearsing these beliefs might bias your evaluation of the evidence for them?

      For example, you cite the Hamas charter as evidence that Hamas cares only about killing Jews, and not at all about land. And yet that same charter also expresses a great deal of interest in land. How is it that the charter’s text is evidence for their desire to kill Jews, and yet not evidence that they care about land? Does this seem to you like an even-handed evaluation of the evidence?

    • anon

      This post is a mix of good and bad, and its choice of “examples of hypocrisy” is clearly motivated by a US neo-libertarian perspective. Can anyone do better?

      Socialism always fail to deliver prosperous societies…

      Arguable. Yes, socialism has led to some truly abysmal regimes, such as North Korea and Maoist China. On the other hand, a number of tolerably prosperous societies describe themselves as “socialist” and are held as an example of “socialism”, including Sweden, Germany, France and even the United Kingdom.

      Mao alone (not to mention Stalin) murdered more people than Hitler…

      Misleading. Mao must surely be blamed for destroying much of China’s cultural heritage in his “cultural revolution”. He also enacted disasterous policies which led to the death of tens of millions of people, and he has been known to dismiss the suffering and deaths he caused; but there is no proof that he ever intended to cause such death and suffering. So the word “murder” and the comparison to Hitler are out of place.

      Che Guevara [was] not some swell guy you might invite over to your house for dinner…

      Che Guevara was an extremely charismatic figure who made valued contributions as an author and intellectual. He touted his coups d’etat as redeeming struggles towards “a better world” for the poor and powerless. These ideas have been endorsed by large numbers of people. Even the anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard extolled Guevara as a “heroic figure”, so we can hardly blame leftists for clinging to a myth and being wistfully ignorant about his brutal character.

    • Fascinating. I agree with some of those observations. However, it is very clear that for every single one of those, they are a commonly made claim. This isn’t like the examples Robin gave at all.

  • RJB

    I find this post puzzling. I agree that nudity is frowned upon in most first world cultures. Why is that a form of hypocrisy? Few people sing loudly in public places, even though we all have the ability to do that.

    As to your list of supposedly hypocritical facts, they don’t seem very hypocritical to me, nor do that seem that discomfiting.

    Few people agree that “medicine has little correlation with health”, although I know you argue this case. Given the incredible demand for books on health, I don’t think “few show much interest in medicine quality,” though again I am sure you would argue that they have mistaken beliefs about quality. People rarely even think about “police internal affairs report to police chiefs,” but that is a very difficult problem in institutional design, and when the topic comes up I suspect people can understand the pros and cons.

    You can make a better case for “college graduates rarely use what they learn,” and the usual response to that is that education trains the mind more generally, and also serves as a filtering device. I don’t see either of those as particularly uncomfortable discussions. Almost everyone would agree that “moral philosophers are not more moral” and I don’t know why having studied the roots and definitions of morality would make someone less likely to behave poorly. As far as “managed funds on average lose money,” mostly people are engaged in wishful thinking, which hardly counts as hypocrisy (unless they are the fund managers who know otherwise). “Voters dislike politicians committed to promises” because we elect representatives to use their judgment, not precommit to soundbites uttered in the midst of a campaign when everyone knows that circumstances are always changing.

    It is indeed an embarrassing fact that “few give much to foreign or future poor”–more generally, people are not very generous to people they don’t know and identify with. But actually, preachers point this out every Sunday.

    Perhaps I need to remember what it was like to be a child, when I would call someone a bad name, my Mom would tell me that isn’t nice, I would say “but it’s true” and my Mom would say that doesn’t matter…so I would call her a hypocrite.

    Now that I am older, failing to take every opportunity to say something ‘because it’s true’ hardly seems like hypocrisy.

  • J

    Part of me is strongly in favor of, at a minimum, uncovering female breasts in public, but I’ve also been to the beach, and quickly realized that there are very few people I’d really like to see naked, and lots (and lots) of people I really wouldn’t.

    “moral philosophers are not more moral”

    You can be a hypocrite and still be right. That’s probably why most of us don’t care. Of course, it’s also a flimsy excuse.

    “I don’t think “few show much interest in medicine quality,”

    Few show interest in the quality of commoditized aspects of medicine (I’m assuming you really mean “medical care”), but are plenty interested in, say, the quality of the guy who will be doing their brain surgery.

    • I suspect that people do care whether their hospital provides cable TV or other commoditized aspects. They might not be willing to pay full costs, but they’d still prefer to have it.

      • J

        I’m referring to generic drugs vs branded, drugstore clinics vs GP for low level issues, etc. I suppose there are people who care about cable TV in their room, just not sure what it has to do with qualitiy of medicine. Also, I’m not that young, and I’ve known maybe 5 people in my entire life who spent enough time in the hospital that something like that would matter.

        One area I have been surprised by is how many people I know who have a commoditized view of LASIK, given the potentially catastrophic (albeit extremely low) risk.

  • Frances Woolley notes something else we all know exists but prefer to keep hidden.

    • nazgulnarsil

      the trouble with rate my professor and rate my cop is that there is no way to distinguish (other than writing quality) whether or not reviews are a good indication of actual quality. these sorts of metrics seem prone to relying on outliers (as mentioned by Wooley, only people with really good and really bad experiences are motivated to review).

      Let’s say that there was some sort of official version of Rate My Professor and professors with bad rankings could get fired. Wouldn’t this encourage professors that grade easy and otherwise pander to students?

      This reveals part of the problem with the granularity of the education system. Once you get into a good college all you have to do is pass. Of course over time colleges that pander to students will lose out in the job market with decreased access to the high status/high pay sectors for their graduates.

  • Matt

    Why don’t more people accept these facts and make an effort to change them or discuss them? Change and discussion are hard. Keeping things the same is easy. Motivating people is hard. Caring about these things is hard until you can feel directly effected by them.

    At least, those answers seem to make the most sense to me. Forgive me if I’m being slightly glib, I don’t mean to come off as such.

  • By definition, since the posters on this board, being humans, are among the subjects of the post, it’s not much surprise that each statement in that list will draw one of the following three reactions on this board:
    • Yes, that’s a truth most are uncomfortable with (rarest)
    • No, that’s not really a truth (commoner)
    • No, that’s a truth most people accept (common)

    I don’t mean to say that this validates the original post, just that it’s no surprise in any case. (In other words, the second and third reactions I listed very well may be the most correct).

    The only one I would seriously take issue with is “medicine has little correlation with health”, just because, by itself, it’s way too vague. What does it mean? Since “medicine” is the study of health, it can’t help but “correlate” with it in some way.

    I suppose it means that the use/application of scientific medicine to people has little correlation with said people’s health? This would surprise me. Even if medicine itself is completely useless (?!) its availability should still correlate with other factors that might affect health more directly, like wealth. Hence, I would expect medicine to correlate with health just like, say, wide-screen-TV ownership would.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Consider common reactions to hearing that:
    Most folks either grab at flimsy excuses to deny or excuse such things, or express mild polite interest and then change the subject.

    Very few of these allow any immediate action on the part of the listener (you can redirect your funds to foreign poor or you can disinvest from managed funds, and… that’s about it). Most people would be rationally ignorant or indifferent to things they cannot do much to change (I, for one, will never have the slightest influence on who the police internal affairs report to).

    You need to put together a list of non-hypocritical factoids (about which people similarly have little influence), in the most impartial way, and see if people react differentially to non-hypocritical and hypocritical factoids. Things like “some countries have two capitals”, “lots of currencies use the dollar symbol $” or “global warming is moving the wine growing industries to new locations”. Would people react sensibly differently to those facts than to the hypocritical ones?

  • Most folks either grab at flimsy excuses to deny or excuse such things, or express mild polite interest and then change the subject.

    It would also be interesting to look at the people who do not exhibit the behavior you described.

  • moral philosophers are not more moral Translation: Thinking clearly about something is not the same as doing it. Most political science teachers aren’t good politicians. Good batting coaches (e.g., Charlie Lau) weren’t outstanding batters. Most acting teachers were not successful actors, and so on.

    college graduates rarely use what they learn. Translation: College is not trade school. it does not teach specific, job-related skills. The important “abilities” it teaches (how to think, how to read, how to write) are general.

    medicine has little correlation with health True in the aggregate. The difference in health indicators from one time and place to another has much more to do with public health factors (e.g., clean water). At the individual level, medicine can make a big difference.

    few give much to foreign or future poor Translation: the more distant –geographically, temporally, socially — the poor are, the less we are likely to give.


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