A few years ago, I discovered that a friend was cheating on their partner. This immediately blackened my perception of my friend. Then I remembered that I had done something quite similar some years earlier. At the time, I was in a miserable relationship which somehow made it seem less bad. I did come clean about it to my ex but this didn’t, of course, make my actions any less awful. Yet I continued to cling to the belief that I was a thoroughly moral person. But why was I not so generous in my appraisal of my friend? And how had I so easily forgotten my own failing?
Research in psychology has consistently shown that we often demand higher moral standards of others than we do of ourselves. But why is that so and how can we stop being so judgemental?
Morals are central to social life. In a series of studies my colleagues and I have demonstrated that we value moral traits above all else. In one study, we had people consider which traits they rate highest in people who occupied different roles in their life – from staff at the grocery counter to teachers, judges and parents. Moral traits, such as being honest, fair and trustworthy, were valued more than other traits, such as being sociable or intelligent, across these roles.
We have also found that people with one moral failing are typically seen in a more negative light than people lacking other traits. In our study, reasonably ethical people who were lacking one moral trait – perhaps a sincere and humble individual who was simultaneously unfair – were judged more harshly than competent people lacking one “competence quality” – for example, an intelligent, athletic person who was not creative.
These findings clearly demonstrate the importance of morality and explain why it it is so damaging for a politician to be caught doing something immoral – much worse than saying something unintelligent or lacking warmth.
But why? One potential answer is that when we evaluate someone’s moral qualities, we are really trying to figure out whether the person has good will towards us and others. By contrast, when we evaluate someone’s intelligence or sociability, we are trying to figure out how capable they are at carrying out their good or bad intentions.
Indeed, in research with another group of colleagues, we found that people appreciate qualities such as intelligence and sociability more in people who are morally upright, but they actually prefer someone to be less competent when the person is thought to be morally corrupt. Our valuing of traits like competence seems to depend on the presence or absence of moral traits, which may partly explain why we hold people to such high moral standards.
Flexible moral code
By contrast, we’re less attentive to our own moral failures. Like a rubber band that can be stretched only so far before it breaks, most of us violate our moral codes only to a limited degree. This allows us to continue to believe in our moral self. If we sinned too dramatically, it would shatter this cherished belief.
The wisdom emerging from research is that we all want to see ourselves as ethical people, yet at times we succumb to temptation and behave unethically. These moral failures challenge our perception of ourselves, and so we engage various mental manoeuvres to neutralise this threat. This could be either before or after we act, and we’re often unaware of it.
One manoeuvre is to exploit ethical wiggle room. We convince ourselves that the violation is not all bad, perhaps because others may benefit from it, or we remind ourselves of ethical actions we have recently performed to give ourselves license to indulge in a little bad behaviour. Indeed, research shows that even men convicted of domestic violence are able to retain a view of themselves as moral, by calling to mind more instances of good than bad.
After we have acted we might forget aspects of the moral failure or distort them to fit our preferred view of ourselves. Indeed, recent research has found that most of us suffer from “ethical amnesia” when it comes to our wrongdoings, while we can retain greater details of our moral achievements. Other studies show that after we commit a misdeed we temporarily loosen our memory of a moral rule or think that it does not apply to us as strongly. Yet we don’t seem to grant others the same moral laxity.
Memories of hurting others or violating our morals may be too burdensome. Forgetting our wrongdoings can therefore help us to return to the comfort of believing in our capacity for good.
Guiding principles to tackle hypocrisy
Being aware of these self-serving tricks may help us be more consistent with our ideals and more charitable with our friends. So what can you do to be a little less judgemental of others, and a little more honest with ourselves? Here are four pieces of advice.
Don’t always assume that a person is aware that they’re doing something wrong. Many situations are ambiguous, and people (including you) are likely to exploit this ambiguity in a favourable way. The person may have even thought they were doing something good, for example, if their misconduct was thought to benefit others.
Don’t assume you understand the full extent of forces that shaped a person’s decision. You don’t have access to this information, not even for yourself.
Humbly realise that we all exploit ethical wiggle room. We all engage in a lot of little sins, and even big sins can start off as unintentional violations.
Be as honest as you can about your own moral failings when they’re happening. Being attentive to your own peccadilloes, and your justifications for them, will help you appreciate how easy it is to deviate from one’s ideals. It might also keep you from being quick to criticise or distance yourself from others when they fail.
So if you’ve read through this entire article, let’s try to put your new knowledge to the test by looking inward before judging others, including me.