Understanding Moral Hypocrisy: Behavioral Antecedents and Social Consequences

Mengchen Dong

Research output: PhD ThesisPhD-Thesis - Research and graduation internal

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People do not always align what they do with what they say, and such misalignment is often condemned as hypocrisy (Alicke et al., 2013; Batson et al., 1997, 2002, 1999; Effron, O’Connor, et al., 2018; Jordan et al., 2017; Stone & Fernandez, 2008). Hypocrisy can be especially detrimental to others and collective goods when it comes to issues about right or wrong, and the relative balance of self- versus social interest (i.e., morality). One of the most striking cases of moral hypocrisy in contemporary human societies may be environmental protection. For instance, while more than 90% of the European citizens indicate that protecting the environment is important to them personally, merely one-third of them have regularly taken environmentally friendly actions like avoiding single-use plastic goods (Eurobarometer, 2019). Despite its prevalence and societal detriments, there is limited evidence on (a) why people behave hypocritically, and (b) how social others perceive and interact with moral hypocrites. Here, moral hypocrisy is defined as inconsistent behaviors that endow the actors with undeserved moral benefits (e.g., Batson et al., 1997, 2002, 1999; Effron & Miller, 2015; Effron, O’Connor, et al., 2018). Thus, the present dissertation aims to illuminate the behavioral regulatory mechanisms of moral hypocrisy at both (a) intrapersonal and (b) interpersonal levels. It is also expected to shed light on potential intervention schemes to promote actions of moral integrity in pivotal domains of social life including work ethics, politics, philanthropy, and sustainability. Specifically, the present dissertation contributes to the understanding of moral hypocrisy by answering four main research questions: (1) Do motives to self-enhance and feelings of moral superiority contribute to the emergence of hypocritical behavior? (2) Do cues of goal-attainment capacities (i.e., competence) influence judgments and attributions of word-deed misaligned transgressions? (3) Are groups motivated to engage in costly punishment to counteract the hypocritical exploitation of higher-status members? And (4) are groups adaptive to cultural dynamics of interdependence in their reactions of status holders’ misaligned words with deeds? Four tentative conclusions can be drawn from our empirical findings: (1) motives to self-enhance and feelings of moral superiority account for moral hypocrisy by prompting public but not private moral behavior; (2) high competence incurs harsher condemnations for word-deed inconsistency; (3) when high status builds on competence, third-party sanctions can be an effective mechanism to counteract status holders’ calculated inconsistencies; and (4) third-party evaluations of word-deed inconsistency differ depending on their cultural interdependence. Moral hypocrisy is a product of both impression management and self-enhancement, and can be appraised differently both depending on who enacts it and who evaluates it. As an initial attempt to address this important but understudied topic, our work is expected to stimulate future studies on mechanisms of moral hypocrisy and intervention programs of moral integrity.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
  • van Lange, Paul, Supervisor
  • van Prooijen, Jan-Willem, Supervisor
Award date25 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished - 25 Feb 2021


  • Morality, Moral hypocrisy, Moral judgment, Moral behavior, Punishment, Self-enhancement, Moral identity, Social status, Competence, Culture


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