We’re all hypocrites from time to time, which means: we all behave in ways, now and then, that are at odds with our own values (or what we say our values are).
And yet, most of the time we don’t feel the least bit guilty about our own hypocritical actions. Why? Because for some reason it doesn’t feel like our own hypocritical actions are contradictory to our beliefs – or, using the correct psychological jargon, because we rarely experience cognitive dissonance as a result of our own hypocritical behavior.
To explain why, Albert Bandura (1925) developed a theory of what he called moral decoupling or detachment. According to the Canadian psychologist, everyone is endowed with a set of spontaneous psychological mechanisms that we use to justify our own immoral behavior – without having to adjust our own values or feeling guilty about it.
The only thing necessary for this to happen, Bandura claims, is that we decouple or detach ourselves from our own behavior and its consequences. In 1999 he described 8 ways in which we all selectively blind ourselves to the consequences of our own actions – actions that we would deem totally unacceptable if we saw anyone else do them.
Enlisted below are, what you might also call, 8 ways in which we are all capable of being complete and total hypocrite without feeling guilty about it.
Who can keep track of all the suffering that has been inflicted throughout history, caused by some perpetrator who claimed that it was all “morally justified“? In other words, because it served the nation, God, or some ideology? Think of Pope Urban II who justified the crusades by saying “Deus lo volt!” (God wants it!) Think of Hitler and Stalin who killed millions of people for an upcoming Communist Utopia or the Third Reich.
Nevertheless, we constantly use such moral justifications too, usually (and luckily) on a much smaller scale. Damned be the ones we catch speeding on the highway; but whenever we’re heavy-footed on the accelerator, then we can always justify our speeding behavior by saying we really had to be somewhere in time.
Take note: whenever people are caught having done something wrong, a lot of times they start to compare themselves to others – saying something to the effect of: “Okay, what I did was bad, but what he did was much worse!” In fact, did you know that we are really doing animals in slaughterhouses a pleasure, because in nature they would suffer a much more horrible death? And of course this defense, of a bodybuilder who was caught in a doping scandal, sounds all too familiar:
“… I don’t drink a lot, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs, so compared to someone who does all that, no, I do not think doping is that bad.“
This form of moral detachment can take extreme forms. When the Americans murdered entire villages during the Vietnam War, they justified this by saying, “If we had not killed them, they would have been converted to communism, which would’ve been much worse. Basically, we had to destroy those villages in order to save them.“
Politicians and company bosses are true masters in this field. A re-allocation might sound harmless, until you’re the one being fired from the company. And of course the government doesn’t kill people, it “neutralises” them. Both of those groups do this, not only to deceive others, but also because by using softening language, they are able to deal much better with the negative impact of their own actions.
In its least conspicuous form, we use diminutives on a regular basis to make something sound les harmful. As Al Capone said: “A little violence never hurt nobody.”
Ignoring or misrepresenting the consequences
How is it that we are able to throw away millions of tons of food every year? Because we are only rarely confronted with the enormous mountains of waste that are a result of our wasteful consumption behaviour.
How is it that many people aren’t losing any sleep over the suffering of refugees? Because we put those immigrant in refugee camps, tucked away from our guilty eyes.
Why is it that people enjoy their piece of meat without any scruples? Because those steaks show no signs of those animals, nor their enduring suffering and slaughter.
And yet, what happens when people are faced with some of the gruesome images inside of slaughterhouses? They trivialize what they see: “These are just exceptions,” they say, or my personal favorite: “Will you put that out? I’m losing my appetite.”
One of the most pernicious ways in which we ignore the sufferings we cause is to no longer regard people as full persons, with an inner sense of feeling. Traditionally, people have always reasserted their negative attitudes towards other races by calling immigrants “rats” or “plagues“. In this way, among others, the Nazis were able to justify the Holocaust, namely by depicting Jews as so-called inferior Untermenschen.
This psychological dynamic also occurs in bullying behaviour, for example, at schools or work. Calling someone an “idiot” (which, in 19th and 20th century medicine, was a person with a very profound intellectual disability) is not only in itself a form of bullying; by describing someone like an idiot, the bullies themselves also justify their bullying behavior and ignore the pain they cause. After all, he’s an “idiot”, so who cares?
We’re all to familiar with this one. A young woman has being assaulted, and sooner or later someone reacts in this way: “Well, she shouldn’t have drunk so much, gone out so late at night, or worn such a short skirt.” While the only and obvious answer is that sexual abusers simply have to stop assaulting people.
Of course, in order to excuse their behaviour, the attackers themselves also use this form of moral decoupling. In the same way, thieves sometimes justify their acts by saying something to effect of: “Well, if you don’t lock your bike properly, then you really had it coming.“
Displacement of responsibility
How is it possible that during the Second World War so many normal Germans found themselves capable of an outright genocide? “Befehl ist befehl!” many of the perpetrators excused their behavior. “An order is an order.” Even though this might sound like a lame excuse, in the 1960s psychologist Stanley Milgram showed that a majority of people are really capable committing the biggest atrocities when they feel like they can transfer their own responsibility to a superior, someone higher in command.
Of course, we all do the same thing to a minimum degree. A subtle example: how much harder and more unfair wouldn’t you tackle someone during a soccer match, just because our trainer or parents encouraged us to do so? “But you told me to do so!” you tell them afterwards, when the member of that other team has to go home with a broken leg and you are sent off the field with a guilty conscience.
Diffusion of responsibility
When Lance Armstrong tried to defend his years of using doping, he referred to how “ubiquitous” the practice was at the time. Of course, you constantly hear this when someone does something wrong: “Everybody does it.” Sure, but how does that make your own wrongdoing any less bad? Because of this way of thinking, nobody feels completely responsible for their own behavior. Why? Because when everyone is responsible, then the blame is also spread, as it were.
Sometimes this happens in subtle ways. Everyone should drive less with the car, in order to spare the environment; but when you take the car to go and visit your grandmother, then “this one time, and that small a distance, won’t make a big difference.” Of course, everybody thinks the same thing. Everybody thinks that the real responsibility lies with everybody else, and as a consequence, nobody adjusts their behavior.
The dangers of moral detachment
It is easy to blame others for all these ways of thinking. However, it is important to realize that almost no one deliberately thinks in these ways – and that most of these acts of self-deception go completely unnoticed, even the ones you yourself perform at a daily basis.
Moreover, people do not blind themselves to their behavior because they intentionally want to perform malicious acts; they do it to neutralize their own cognitive discomfort. Usually the consequences are quite innocent. But as Albert Bandura himself warned:
For evil to prevail, many good people have to do a little bit of harm, in a morally detached way, without worrying about the human suffering they cause collectively.