Humans are built to be hypocritical

Robin Hanson makes this assertion in a recent post in his blog “Overcoming Bias.” I found his argument as to why this is so pretty provocative. Yesterday, I had actually linked out to an article at Science Daily on why powerful people don’t practice what they preach. The Science Daily piece pointed to research indicating more powerful individuals are more likely to be hypocrites.

"According to our research, power and influence can cause a severe disconnect between public judgment and private behavior, and as a result, the powerful are stricter in their judgment of others while being more lenient toward their own actions," he continued.

To simulate an experience of power, the researchers assigned roles of high-power and low-power positions to a group of study participants. Some were assigned the role of prime minister and others civil servant. The participants were then presented with moral dilemmas related to breaking traffic rules, declaring taxes, and returning a stolen bike.

Through a series of five experiments, the researchers examined the impact of power on moral hypocrisy. For example, in one experiment the "powerful" participants condemned the cheating of others while cheating more themselves. High-power participants also tended to condemn over-reporting of travel expenses. But, when given a chance to cheat on a dice game to win lottery tickets (played alone in the privacy of a cubicle), the powerful people reported winning a higher amount of lottery tickets than did low-power participants.

Pretty powerful stuff. That brings me to the Hanson piece. He says the following:

Humans are built to be hypocritical, i.e., to give lip service and soft thought to high ideals, while mostly acting to achieve low practical personal ends.  We manage this disconnect both by being stupid, and so not noticing our hypocrisy, and by being insincere, and so caring less when we notice.

Now human characteristics vary quite a bit, and so some folks are both unusually smart and unusually conscientious about their ideals.  More than most people, these folks notice their hypocrisy, and try to avoid it.  And since far ideals tend toward incoherence and impracticality, this has led smart sincere folks to invent a wide range of “ideologies” to substitute for their jumbled intuitions, with matching actions that range far from the norm.

Since showing sincerity and smarts is more important than accuracy, showing that one’s far ideals fit with a coherent and well-thought out ideology is more important than showing accuracy relative to some external standard.

If I understand Robin correctly, he is saying that a leader or pundit who seems to make coherent but more inaccurate statements is better regarded than one who makes less coherent but more accurate statements. A June article in New Science summed this regard up as “Humans prefer cockiness to expertise.”  What this means in practice is that ideologues (those who express extreme but more coherent views) are attractive because of the apparent coherence of their views – and I stress the word apparent. Robin puts it this way (emphasis added):

Now a modest dose of smart sincerity, limited by time, topic or temperament, is a good sign, as it indicates the positive qualities of intelligence and conscientiousness, qualities most any organization can put to good use.  So everyone wants to seem ideological to some degree.  And even a large dose of smart sincerity, if bundled with complements such as beauty, stamina, or charisma, can bring success as a “movement” or spiritual leader.  But without such complements, an overdose of smart sincerity tends toward evolutionary failure, typically achieving less success relative to ability.

Translation: reality is filled with contradictions that belie the apparent coherence of ideology. I have labeled the belief in strong versions of the efficient market hypothesis as misguided for just this reason.  Markets are efficient and de-centralized and we should almost always prefer them to the heavy and coercive hand of government – the stress being almost always. So, when I point out my belief in the primacy of markets, I guess I am following Robin’s dictum of wanting to seem ideological to some degree.  I hope I am also intelligent enough to know when ideology can lead us astray as well.

See John Hempton’s post Kodak, Bill Gates and efficient markets, where he demonstrates that this belief in strong versions of market efficiency can also be financially costly for the Smart Sincere thought leaders to whom Robin refers in his article.

As for my support of deregulation but my dim view of the anti-regulation movement – what I call deregulation as crony capitalism, the Science Daily piece sums it up well:

"Ultimately, patterns of hypocrisy and hypercrisy perpetuate social inequality. The powerful impose rules and restraints on others while dis regarding these restraints for themselves, whereas the powerless collaborate in reproducing social inequality because they don’t feel the same entitlement," Galinsky concluded.


Smart Sincere Syndrome – Robin Hanson

Why Powerful People — Many of Whom Take a Moral High Ground — Don’t Practice What They Preach – Science Daily


Edward Harrison is the founder of Credit Writedowns and a former career diplomat, investment banker and technology executive with over twenty years of business experience. He is also a regular economic and financial commentator on BBC World News, CNBC Television, Business News Network, CBC, Fox Television and RT Television. He speaks six languages and reads another five, skills he uses to provide a more global perspective. Edward holds an MBA in Finance from Columbia University and a BA in Economics from Dartmouth College. Edward also writes a premium financial newsletter. Sign up here for a free trial.