A Theory of Hypocrisy

Joe, Bea, and Greg need to decorate the tent for the big party later that night. Joe is doing his share of the work, but when he looks over his shoulder he sees Bea and Greg drinking a beer and having a good time. Joe is pissed.

“Hey you two, do you expect me to all of this by myself?”

“Relax”, Bea says, “we’ve got time.”

“People are due to arrive in 2 hours and we still have all of this to hang from the ceiling. If you guys don’t start helping me do this I’ll quit and the party will suck.”

“Fine Joe, jeez, you can be such a hardass sometimes.”

Bea and Greg start doing their fair share of the work. Soon however, Greg notices something.

“Hey Bea, have you seen Joe?”

“I think he’s out back.”

Greg finds Joe sitting in a chair playing with his phone.

“Can’t believe this. You lecture us about doing our work and yet here you are like it’s nothing. Hypocrite.”

The party was a success


By definition, an hypocrite is someone who acts in contradiction to his stated beliefs. Joe is an hypocrite. He scolded Bea and Greg for not doing their fair share of the work yet, after getting them to work, he decided that the rules didn’t apply to him.

Each one of us can recognize an hypocrite, and each one of us can be, or has been, an hypocrite. That this behavior, and our capability to identify it, seems universal fascinates me.

Human behavior doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Everyone who has read a little bit of evolutionary psychology knows that. Some behaviors arise from evolutionary pressures to ensure our success, in evolutionary terms, despite those constraints. An example would be how the differing burdens of siring a child in males and females shaped the mating strategies of each sex.

I hypothesize hypocrisy was woven from the same evolutionary cloth. Our success as a species was due to our ability to cooperate in large groups, and one problem that must be solved to sustain large-scale cooperation is the free rider problem. A free rider problem arises when an individual benefits from the resources and goods that a group is able to procure without having contributed to it. This poses a problem for cooperation because if everyone decides to coast on the backs of others, then nothing gets done. Developing solutions that bring the number of free riders to sustainable levels is of paramount importance to any group if it is to be successful.

Yet the needs of the group can indeed be different from those of the individuals. The free rider problem exists precisely because it is advantageous for the individual to not put in the work and still get the rewards. Why risk your life bringing a mammoth down? The others can do it without you and you still get to eat. You can’t beat that. Yet the individual must make sure that the group goes through with the motions that get the reward. No one’s getting any mammoth if no one goes out to kill him.

Thus hypocrisy. Joe wants the tent to be decorated in time because a successful party raises him in status among his social group. When he notices that he alone is working he gets furious because his friends are coasting on his hard work. He then uses his rhetorical and argumentative powers to get his friends into doing the work that they should be doing, thus ensuring their cooperation. Yet now that they are cooperating, he sees an opportunity to dodge his own share of the work, which if he is able to do until the tent is fully decorated means that he gets the gains without putting in much work. Of course then Greg is onto him and in the end the three of them decorate the tent quickly and have a blast in the party.

So this free rider problem gave rise to at least two different modules. One is the behavior itself, the shirking off of one’s share of the work while retaining a share of the rewards, i.e. being a free rider. The other is not only the ability to identify when another person is slacking off, but the cultural environment where that is recognized as wrong. The first is an individual behavior, the second a cultural response.

I hypothesize one would find a concept similar to hypocrisy in every culture. Perhaps those studying cultural evolution can tell me if I’m wrong or not, but I find it hard to imagine that other cultures wouldn’t have some variation on the idea of hypocrisy as a cultural concept to identify free riders, and thus labeled as wrong to ensure full cooperation. It seems to me that this has the qualities necessary to pass on through the generations as something that increases group fitness (of course there might be other ways to solve this problem, hypocrisy is just one of them, and not a costly one at that.)

This theory of mine also explains why each one of us recognizes that hypocrisy is bad, and yet still engage in it from time to time. It pays to be an hypocrite. If no one finds out.

I haven’t read Robert Kurzban’s Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite. I wouldn’t be surprised if it includes something similar to the theory here presented, or a much better one at that