For other uses, see Hypocrisy (disambiguation).
A two-faced hypocrite: Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) of China

Hypocrisy is the contrivance of a false appearance of virtue or goodness, while concealing real character or inclinations, especially with respect to religious and moral beliefs; hence in general sense, dissimulation, pretense, sham. It is the practice of engaging in the same behavior or activity for which one criticizes another. In moral psychology, it is the failure to follow one's own expressed moral rules and principles.[1] According to British political philosopher David Runciman, "Other kinds of hypocritical deception include claims to knowledge that one lacks, claims to a consistency that one cannot sustain, claims to a loyalty that one does not possess, claims to an identity that one does not hold."[2] American political journalist Michael Gerson says that political hypocrisy is "the conscious use of a mask to fool the public and gain political benefit."[3]

Hypocrisy has been a subject of folk wisdom and wisdom literature from the beginnings of human history. Increasingly, since the 1980s, it has also become central to studies in behavioral economics, cognitive science, cultural psychology, decision making, ethics, evolutionary psychology, moral psychology, political sociology, positive psychology, social psychology, and social psychology (sociology).


The word hypocrisy comes from the Greek ὑυπόκρισις (hypokrisis), which means "jealous", "play-acting", "acting out", "coward" or "dissembling".[4] The word hypocrite is from the Greek word ὑποκριτής (hypokritēs), the agentive noun associated with υποκρίνομαι (hypokrinomai κρίση, "judgment" »κριτική (kritiki), "critics") presumably because the performance of a dramatic text by an actor was to involve a degree of interpretation, or assessment.

Alternatively, the word is an amalgam of the Greek prefix hypo-, meaning "under", and the verb krinein, meaning "to sift or decide". Thus the original meaning implied a deficiency in the ability to sift or decide. This deficiency, as it pertains to one's own beliefs and feelings, informs the word's contemporary meaning.[5]

Whereas hypokrisis applied to any sort of public performance (including the art of rhetoric), hypokrites was a technical term for a stage actor and was not considered an appropriate role for a public figure. In Athens in the 4th century BC, for example, the great orator Demosthenes ridiculed his rival Aeschines, who had been a successful actor before taking up politics, as a hypocrites whose skill at impersonating characters on stage made him an untrustworthy politician. This negative view of the hypokrites, perhaps combined with the Roman disdain for actors, later shaded into the originally neutral hypokrisis. It is this later sense of hypokrisis as "play-acting", i.e., the assumption of a counterfeit persona, that gives the modern word hypocrisy its negative connotation.


American historian Martin Jay in The Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics (2012) explores how writers over the centuries have treated hypocrisy, deception, flattery, lying and cheating, slander, false pretenses, living on borrowed glory, masquerading, conventions of concealment, playacting before others and the arts of dissimulation. He assumes that politics is worthwhile, but since it is unavoidably linked to lying and hypocrisy, Jay concludes that lying must not be all that bad.[6]

Great Britain

Hypocrisy became a major topic in English political history in the early 18th century. The Toleration Act of 1689 allowed for certain rights, but it left Protestant Nonconformists (Such as Congregationalists and Baptists) deprived of important rights, including that of office-holding. Nonconformists who wanted office ostentatiously took the Anglican sacrament once a year in order to avoid the restrictions. High Church Anglicans were outraged and outlawed what they called "occasional conformity" in 1711 with the Occasional Conformity Act 1711.[7] In the political controversies using sermons, speeches, and pamphlet wars, both high churchmen and Nonconformists attacked their opponents as insincere and hypocritical, as well as dangerously zealous, in contrast to their own moderation. This campaign of moderation versus zealotry, peaked in 1709 during the impeachment trial of high church preacher Henry Sacheverell. Historian Mark Knights, argues that by its very ferocity, the debate may have led to more temperate and less hypercharged political discourse. Occasional conformity was restored by the Whigs when they returned to power in 1719.[8]

English author Bernard Mandeville ( 1670-1733) famous 's "Fable of the Bees" (1714) explored the nature of hypocrisy in contemporary European society. On the one hand, Mandeville was a ‘moralist’ heir to the French Augustinianism of the previous century, viewing sociability as a mere mask for vanity and pride. On the other, he was a ‘materialist’ who helped found modern economics. He tried to demonstrate the universality of human appetites for corporeal pleasures. He argued that the efforts of self-seeking entrepreneurs are the basis of emerging commercial and industrial society, a line of thought that influenced Adam Smith (1723-1790) and 19th century Utilitarianism. The tension between these two approaches modes ambivalences and contradictions—concerning the relative power of norms and interests, the relationship between motives and behaviours, and the historical variability of human cultures.[9] In the Enlightenment of the 18th century, discussions of hypocrisy were common in the works of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montaigne.[10]

In the 1750 to 1850 era, Whig aristocrats in England boasted of their special benevolence for the common people. They claimed to be guiding and counseling reform initiatives to prevent the outbreaks of popular discontent that caused instability and revolution across Europe. However Tory and radical critics accused the Whigs of hypocrisy—alleging they were deliberately using the slogans of reform and democracy to boost themselves into power while preserving their precious aristocratic exclusiveness. Historian L.G. Mitchell defends the Whigs, pointing out that thanks to them radicals always had friends at the centre of the political elite, and thus did not feel as marginalized as in most of Europe. He points out that the debates on the 1832 Reform Bill showed that reformers would indeed receive a hearing at parliamentary level with a good chance of success.[11] Meanwhile, a steady stream of observers from the Continent commented on the English political culture. Liberal and radical observers noted the servility of the English lower classes, the obsession everyone had with rank and title, the extravagance of the aristocracy, a supposed anti-intellectualism, and a pervasive hypocrisy that extended into such areas as social reform. There were not so many conservative visitors. They praised the stability of English society, its ancient constitution, and reverence for the past; they ignored the negative effects of industrialization.[12]

United States

In the propaganda battles of World War II, Japan attacked American hypocrisy by emphasizing the injustice of the incarceration camps for Japanese in the United States. Radio Tokyo emphasized that the camps revealed the hypocritical of American claim to democratic ideals and fair play. The propaganda quoted American founding fathers, neutral sources, and dissenting opinions from major American newspapers. Radio Tokyo utilized fictitious sources as well. It proclaimed the moral superiority of Japan while threatening to mistreat American POWs in retaliation.[13]

Moral and religious codes

Many belief systems condemn hypocrisy.[14]

In some translations of the Book of Job, the Hebrew word chaneph is rendered as "hypocrite," though it usually means "godless" or "profane." In the Christian Bible, Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites in the passage known as the Woes of the Pharisees.[15][16]

In the Buddhist text Dhammapada, Gautama Buddha condemns a man who takes the appearance of an ascetic but is full of passions within.[17]

In Islam, hypocrisy is a serious sickness.[18] The Qur'an rails against those who claim to be believers and peacemakers, thinking they are fooling Allah and others, but only fool themselves.[19]


Hypocrisy has long been of interest to psychologists.

Carl Jung

In Switzerland Carl Jung (1875–1961) attributed hypocrisy to those who are not aware of the dark or shadow-side of their nature. Jung wrote:

Every individual needs revolution, inner division, overthrow of the existing order, and renewal, but not by forcing them upon his neighbors under the hypocritical cloak of Christian love or the sense of social responsibility or any of the other beautiful euphemisms for unconscious urges to personal power.[20]

Jung went on:

It is under all circumstances an advantage to be in full possession of one's personality, otherwise the repressed elements will only crop up as a hindrance elsewhere, not just at some unimportant point, but at the very spot where we are most sensitive. If people can be educated to see the shadow-side of their nature clearly, it may be hoped that they will also learn to understand and love their fellow men better. A little less hypocrisy and a little more self-knowledge can only have good results in respect for our neighbor; for we are all too prone to transfer to our fellows the injustice and violence we inflict upon our own natures.[21]

In New Paths in Psychology (1916) Jung pointedly referred to the "hypocritical pretenses of man". Dream-analysis above all else mercilessly uncovers the lying morality and hypocritical pretences of man, showing him, for once, the other side of his character in the most vivid light [22] Jung omitted this characterization from his later essay On the Psychology of the Unconscious (1943), which developed out of the former.

Preference for the effortless

Niccolò Machiavelli noted that "the mass of mankind accept what seems as what is; nay, are often touched more nearly by appearances than by realities".[23] Natural selection works by the principle of survival of the fittest, and several researchers have shown that humans evolved to play the game of life in a Machiavellian way.[24] The best way to cultivate a reputation for fairness is to really be fair. But since it is much harder to be fair than to seem fair, and since laziness is built deep into human nature,[25] humans more often choose appearance over reality.[26]


"So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do."[27] Benjamin Franklin's observation has been confirmed by recent studies in self-deception.[28] In everyday reasoning, humans do little to get real evidence when taking positions or making decisions, and do even less to get evidence for opposing positions. Instead, they tend to fabricate "pseudo-evidence"– often after the decision had already been made ("post hoc fabrication").[29]

Humans take a position, look for evidence that supports it, then, if they find some evidence – enough so that the position "makes sense" – they stop thinking altogether (the "makes-sense stopping rule").[30] And, when pressed to produce real evidence, they tend to seek and interpret "evidence" that confirms what they already believe (the "confirmation bias").[31]

Moreover, humans tend to think highly of themselves, highlighting strengths and achievements, and overlooking weakness and failures (the "self-serving bias"). This is particularly true of Americans and Europeans: when asked to rate themselves on virtues, skills, or other desirable traits (including ethics, intelligence, driving ability, and sexual skills), a large majority say they are above average.[32] Power and privilege magnify the distortion: 94% of college professors think that they do above average work.[33] This effect is weaker in Asian countries and in other cultures which value the group more highly than the self.[34]

Evolutionary psychology

Evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban argues that one's moral modules lead one to condemn infidelity while mating modules induce one to commit it.[35]

Power magnifies these effects. People in power are more likely to commit infidelity[36] and to condemn infidelity.[37]


Robert Wright wrote that "Human beings are a species splendid in their array of moral equipment, tragic in their propensity to misuse it, and pathetic in their constitutional ignorance of the misuse."[38] Humans are very good at challenging the beliefs of other people, but when it comes to their own beliefs, they tend to protect them, not challenge them.[39] A consistent finding of psychological research is that humans are fairly accurate in their perceptions of others, but generally inaccurate in their perceptions of themselves.[40] Humans tend to judge others by their behavior, but think they have special information about themselves – that they know what they are "really like" inside – and thus effortlessly find ways to explain away selfish acts, and maintain the illusion that they are better than others.[41]


Although there are many negatives to hypocrisy, there can be benefits from hypocrisy.[42] There are also benefits from ignoring it. Political theorist Judith N. Shklar argues, in "Let Us Not Be Hypocritical," we are all too eager to construe even minor deviations from our opponents' professed beliefs as hypocrisy, rather than understandable imperfections and weaknesses to everyone is prone.[43][44]

Political journalist Michael Gerson notes that, "There is often hypocritical deception involved in political and diplomatic negotiations, which generally start with principled, nonnegotiable demands that are negotiated away in the process of finding a compromise." Gerson concludes:

hypocrisy is unavoidable and necessary. If people were required, at all times, to live up to ideals of honesty, loyalty and compassion in order for those ideals to exist, there would be no ideals. Being a moral person is a struggle in which everyone repeatedly fails, becoming a hypocrite in each of those moments. A just and peaceful society depends on hypocrites who ultimately refused to abandon the ideals they betray.[45]

See also


  1. Lammers, Joris, et al. "Power increases infidelity among men and women." Psychological Science 22.9 (2011): 1191-1197.
  2. David Runciman (2010). Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond. Princeton UP. p. 8.
  3. Michael Gerson, "Trump's hypocrisy is good for America" Washington Post Nov. 29, 2016
  4. Pocket Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary, ed Morwood and Taylor, OUP 2002
  5. "Online Etymology Dictionary: "hypocrisy"". Etymonline.com. Retrieved 2013-03-28.
  6. Bryan Garsten, "Looking for an honest man." Modern Intellectual History 8#3 (2011): 697-708.
  7. Clyve Jones, "‘Too Wild to Succeed’: The Occasional Conformity Bills and the Attempts by the House of Lords to Outlaw the Tack in the Reign of Anne." Parliamentary History 30.3 (2011): 414-427.
  8. Mark Knights, "Occasional conformity and the representation of dissent: hypocrisy, sincerity, moderation and zeal." Parliamentary History 24#1 (2005): 41-57.
  9. Daniel Luban, "Bernard Mandeville as Moralist and Materialist." History of European Ideas 41.7 (2015): 831-857.
  10. James Miller, "Rousseau and Montaigne." Raritan 33.4 (2014): 158-166.
  11. L.G. Mitchell, "The Whigs, the People, and Reform," Proceedings of the British Academy (1999), Vol. 85, pp 25-41
  12. Paul Langford, "The English as Reformers: Foreign Visitors' Impressions, 1750-1850" Proceedings of the British Academy (1999), Vol. 85, pp 101-119.
  13. Takeya Mizuno, "An Enemy's Talk of 'Justice'." Journalism History 39.2 (2013): 94+.
  14. Thomas P. Kasulis, "Hypocrisy in the Self-Understanding of Religions." in Inter-Religious Models and Criteria (Palgrave Macmillan, 1993) pp. 151-165.
  15. Gospel of Luke 11:37-54 and Gospel of Matthew 23:1-36
  16. Steve Mason, "Pharisaic Dominance Before 70 CE and the Gospels' Hypocrisy Charge (Matt 23: 2–3)." Harvard Theological Review 83#4 (1990): 363-381.
  17. "What is the use of platted hair, O fool! what of the raiment of goat-skins? Within thee there is ravening, but the outside thou makest clean. The man who wears dirty raiments, who is emaciated and covered with veins, who lives alone in the forest, and meditates, him I call indeed a Brâhmana. I do not call a man a Brâhmana because of his origin or of his mother. He is indeed arrogant, and he is wealthy: but the poor, who is free from all attachments, him I call indeed a Brâhmana. Dhammapada 394-396, Translated from the Pâli by F. Max Müller
  18. Christine Huda Dodge (2009). The Everything Understanding Islam Book: A complete guide to Muslim beliefs, practices, and culture. p. 96.
  19. "And of mankind are some who say, 'We believe in God and the Last Day,' when they believe not. They think to beguile God and those who believe, and they beguile none save themselves; but they perceive not. In their hearts is a disease, and God increases their disease. A painful doom is theirs because they lie. And when it is said to them, 'Make not mischief on the earth,' they say, 'We are only peacemakers.' Behold they are indeed the mischief-makers but they perceive not." Al-Baqara 8-12
  20. Jung, 1966:5
  21. Jung, 1966:par. 28
  22. Jung, 1966:par. 437
  23. Machiavelli, N. (2004), Book 1 Ch 25. Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius. Project Gutenberg.
  24. Byrne, R. W., & Whiten, A. (1988). Machiavellian intelligence: Social expertise and the evolution of intellect in monkeys, apes, and humans. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  25. Kahneman, D. (2011), p. 35. Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  26. Haidt, J. (2006), p. 61. The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York: Basic Books. (pdf)
  27. Franklin, B. (1771), p. 18. The autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Ushistory.org
  28. von, H. W., & Trivers, R. (January 01, 2011). The evolution and psychology of self-deception. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34, 1, 1-16. (pdf)
  29. Kuhn, D. (1991). The skills of argument. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  30. Perkins, D. N., Farady, M., & Bushey, B. In Voss, J. F., Perkins, D. N., & Segal, J. W. (1991). Informal reasoning and education. Hillsdale, N.J: L. Erlbaum Associates.
  31. Wason, P. C. (1960-01-01). On the Failure to Eliminate Hypotheses in a Conceptual Task. Quarterly journal of experimental psychology, 12, 129.
  32. Alicke, Mark D.; Klotz, M. L.; Breitenbecher, David L.; Yurak, Tricia J.; Vredenburg, Debbie S. Personal contact, individuation, and the better-than-average effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 68(5), May 1995, 804-825.
  33. Cross, K. P. (January 01, 1977). Not Can, But Will College Teaching Be Improved?. New Directions for Higher Education, 17, 1-15.
  34. Heine, S. J. (1999-08-01). Culture, self-discrepancies, and self-satisfaction. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 25(8), 915.
  35. Robert Kurzban, Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite: Evolution and the modular mind (Princeton UP, 2010).
  36. Lammers, Joris, et al. "Power increases infidelity among men and women." Psychological Science 22.9 (2011): 1191-1197.
  37. Lammers, Joris, Diederik A. Stapel, and Adam D. Galinsky. "Power increases hypocrisy moralizing in reasoning, immorality in behavior." Psychological Science 21#5 (2010): 737-744.
  38. Wright, R. (1995). The moral animal: Evolutionary psychology and everyday life. New York: Vintage Books.
  39. Shaw, V. (May 01, 1996). The Cognitive Processes in Informal Reasoning. Thinking & Reasoning, 2, 1, 51-80.
  40. Haidt, J. (2006), p. 66. The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York: Basic Books (pdf)
  41. Epley, N. (2000-12-01). Feeling "Holier Than Thou". Journal of personality and social psychology, 79(6), 861-875.
  42. Demetris Tillyris, "The virtue of vice: a defence of hypocrisy in democratic politics." Contemporary Politics 22.1 (2016): 1-19.
  43. Haavard Koppang and Mike W. Martin. "On Moralizing in Business Ethics." Business & Professional Ethics Journal 23.3 (2004): 107-114.
  44. Judith Shklar, "Let us not be hypocritical." Daedalus (1979): 1-25. in JSTOR
  45. Gerson, "Trump's hypocrisy is good for America" (2016)


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