What Hypocrisy Feels Like

Our book The Elephant in the Brain argues that there are often big differences between the motives by which we sincerely explain our behavior, and the motives that more drive and shape that behavior. But even if this claim seems plausible to you in the abstract, you might still not feel fully persuaded, if you find it hard to see this contrast clearly in a specific example.

That is, you might want to see what hypocrisy feels like up close. To see the two different kinds of motives in you in a particular case, and see that you are inclined to talk and think in terms of the first, but see your concrete actions being more driven by the second.

If so, consider the example of utopia, or heaven. When we talk about an ideal world, we are quick to talk in terms of the usual things that we would say are good for a society overall. Such as peace, prosperity, longevity, fraternity, justice, comfort, security, pleasure, etc. A place where everyone has the rank and privileges that they deserve. We say that we want such a society, and that we would be willing to work and sacrifice to create or maintain it.

But our allegiance to such a utopia is paper thin, and is primarily to a utopia described in very abstract terms. Our abstract thoughts about utopia generate very little emotional energy in us, and our minds quickly turn to other topics. In addition, as soon as someone tries to describe a heaven or utopia in vivid concrete terms, we tend to be put off or repelled. Even if such a description satisfies our various abstract good-society features, we find reasons to complain. No, that isn’t our utopia, we say. Even if we are sure to go to heaven if we die, we don’t want to die.

And this is just what near-far theory predicts. Our near and far minds think differently, with our far minds presenting a socially desirable image to others, and our near minds more in touch with what we really want. Our far minds are more in charge when we are prompted to think abstractly and hypothetically, but our near minds are more in charge when we privately make real concrete choices.

Evolved minds like ours really want to win the evolutionary game. And when there are status hierarchies tied to evolutionary success, we want to rise in those hierarchies. We want to join a team, and help that team win, as long as that team will then in turn help us to win. And we see all this concretely in the data; we mainly care about our social rank:

The outcome of life satisfaction depends on the incomes of others only via income rank. (Two followup papers find the same result for outcomes of psychological distress and nine measures of health.) They looked at 87,000 Brits, and found that while income rank strongly predicted outcomes, neither individual (log) income nor an average (log) income of their reference group predicted outcomes, after controlling for rank (and also for age, gender, education, marital status, children, housing ownership, labor-force status, and disabilities). (more)

But this isn’t what we want to think, or to say to others. With our words, and with other very visible cheap actions, we want to be pro-social. That is, we want to say that we want to help society overall. Or at least to help our society. While we really crave fights by which we might rise relative to others, we want to frame those fights in our minds and words as fighting for society overall, such as by fighting for justice against the bad guys.

And so when the subject of utopia comes up, framed abstractly and hypothetically, we first react with our far minds: we embrace our abstract ideals. We think we want them embodied in a society, and we think we want to work to create that society. And our thoughts remain this way as long as the discussion remains abstract, and we aren’t at much risk of actually incurring substantial supporting personal costs.

But the more concrete the discussion gets, and the closer to asking for concrete supporting actions, the more we recoil. We start to imagine a real society in detail wherein we don’t see good opportunities for our personal advancement over others. And where we don’t see injustices which we could use as excuses for our fights. And our real motivations, our real passions, tell us that they have reservations; this isn’t the sort of agenda that we can get behind.

So there it is: your hypocrisy up close and personal, in a specific case. In the abstract you believe that you like the idea of utopia, but you recoil at most any concrete example. You assume you have a good pro-social reason for your recoil, and will mention the first candidate that comes to your head. But you don’t have a good reason, and that’s just what hypocrisy feels like. Utopia isn’t a world where you can justify much conflict, but conflict is how you expect to win, and you really really want to win. And you expect to win mainly at others’ expense. That’s you, even if you don’t like to admit it.

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