A liar says x is true when she knows x is false or vice versa. A hypocrite casts shame and expresses intense moral condemnation about people for engaging in behavior in which she herself engages behind closed doors. People dislike liars, but they loathe hypocrites.
In a research paper titled “Why Do We Hate Hypocrites?,” psychologist Jillian Jordan describes a hypothetical situation in which two friends, Becky and Amanda, are discussing a mutual acquaintance. Amanda mentions that the acquaintance often downloads music illegally from the Internet. In one variation, the story then reveals that Becky says that she doesn’t download music illegally. Shortly after the conversation, Becky goes online and downloads music illegally. In other words, Becky is lying.
In a separate variation, the story instead continues with Becky saying she thinks it is morally wrong to download music illegally from the Internet. Shortly after the conversation, Becky goes online, and downloads music illegally. In other words, Becky is being hypocritical.
The participants in each group then rate how good a person Becky is.
As you may have guessed, participants rate hypocritical Becky as a much worse person than lying Becky.
Jordan offers one potential explanation:
Hypocrites are actually more misleading than liars, because their condemnation is perceived as such a strong signal that they personally behave morally. We provide evidence for the theory that the reason people dislike hypocrites is that their condemnation sends a “false signal” about their personal moral conduct, deceptively suggesting that they do not transgress.
This hypocritical false signal is particularly potent, since it implicates others, rather than merely being a statement about oneself. The lie is damaging, but the stronger false signal of hypocrisy brings out the pitchforks and the penalty is severe.
Donald Trump is a serial liar. From the Alabama sharpie to his claim to have a favorite Bible verse to his assertion that windmill noise causes cancer, there is an ever-expanding list of Trump’s lies. Donald Trump’s superpower, however, is his probably inadvertent exploitation of the imbalance between our outsized hatred of hypocrites, by contrast with our mere dislike of liars.
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s Everybody Lies analyses mountains of data from Google searches, dating sites, pornography sites, Facebook, and other sources, to show that people tend to be more honest when using the Google search bar than at just about any other time, including while filling out anonymous surveys, within real relationships and—especially—on online social platforms. He refers to the Google search bar as a “digital truth serum.”
Dipping into that data well produces some amusing insights—like the disparity between the percentage of people who say they’ve read a whole book or article versus the data which reveals how many actually have completed it, or the amount of sex men say they are having versus the revealed reality of condom purchases, or the truth that the romantic dream vacation to Fiji you witnessed on Instagram was littered with Google searches like Why won’t my wife have sex with me? and How do I tell if my husband is cheating?
Some of the insights are important and powerful, such as the spike in internet searches for how to give myself an abortion in areas where the procedure is banned or the correlation between searches for why did Daddy hit me? and areas where the 2008 recession hit the hardest. There are also answers to questions such as what do people commonly search for before a suicide attempt? This kind of data often does not show up anywhere else and is crying out for actionable attention.
The pornography data is also telling. The frequency of searches for depraved, taboo and even disturbing material is much higher than many of us would wish to know.
One common response to this is to get depressed at the digital glimpse of all the skeletons in closets lurking behind the friendly smiles at the grocery store. But there is a much more hopeful and encouraging lens through which to view this data: Oh hey, I guess I’m not the only one struggling with that! This is an opportunity for all of us to dismount from our moral high horses for a minute and realize we’ve all been down in the dirt all along. This might do us all some good.
Jordan’s study introduces another variant of Becky, whom the researchers call the honest hypocrite. This Becky tells her friend that she thinks it is morally wrong when people download music illegally, but that she sometimes does it anyway. This honest hypocrite version of Becky actually scores quite high on the good person scale—even higher than the regular liar.
To picture the liar vs hypocrite distinction imagine a discussion of literature at a dinner party. A liar would say “I’ve read the whole of Moby Dick and I especially loved the end” while the truth (and the data on his Kindle) would reflect that he actually bailed a quarter of the way through. But a hypocrite would shame and confidently morally condemn people who pretend to finish books, although her data would reveal exactly the same thing.
We might understand the lesson of Stephens-Davidowitz’s book to be the liar is kind of a crummy person, but I guess lying about that kind of thing is really common. And hey, I think I can admit that I do that too sometimes. If the liar insists that he’s read all of Moby Dick and continues to tell much more consequential lies then we might get pretty upset. We might stop trusting that person or even cut off the friendship.
So, why do so many people seem not to care that Donald Trump lies? Why don’t we all just cut him off? (Please, don’t ask him if he’s read all of Moby Dick). My theory is that he is not perceived to be a hypocrite by his base. In fact, he calls out hypocrites, constantly reminding people that there is a bigger enemy in the room. This is why he never apologizes when called out for lying but instead insists that the source of the moral condemnation he is receiving has committed the same transgression, despite his impassioned speeches and crocodile tears. This charge is often a lie in itself, but not always. He is currently aggressively attempting to pull this same trick with the Bidens and Ukraine.
This expose the hypocrite tactic is employed at the level of the culture wars and the conversation between coastal elites and non-cosmopolitan rural America. Consider Hollywood, a frequent target of Donald Trump and especially Don Jr.
Hollywood famously loves to shame and morally condemn all kinds of people. It’s often very emotional and slick. Sometimes, this happens on screen and sometimes on award stages. Nowadays, a lot of this is mirrored on Twitter. But are the moralizers in Hollywood hypocrites? What would the data reveal about the number of books which they’ve finished or about whether they ever laugh at comedy that uses stereotypes. Maybe they even watch a little not-so-kosher pornography or perhaps they enjoy something as unsophisticated as pro wrestling or NASCAR. Maybe they even sneak in a Reese’s peanut butter cup between the perfect Instagram yoga poses.
Lying about those kinds of things, while perhaps crummy, is insanely common. If we’d stop pretending that it’s not, maybe we could laugh at ourselves a little more—biases, vices, impulses and all. Maybe we’d even start to address these faults a little better. Comedians like Dave Chappelle and Bill Burr seem to have their finger on this point at the moment and are finding huge audiences who are dying to laugh in public again.
Many Americans are tired of being shamed and lectured about their diets, lifestyles, interests and choices by people they suspect don’t have such saintly Google histories either. One example highlighted in Stephens-Davidowitz’s work is that Google searches for nigger tend to be just as frequent in areas with high Republican as in areas with high Democrat populations.
There is a common misconception about Donald Trump. His supporters are often accused of severe cognitive dissonance, given their ire at the coastal urban elites and the fact that Trump’s own identity lies squarely within that category, since he is a big city trust fund baby. But Donald Trump is not in the elite cultural tribe. He could never pull off the kind of fakery that is required to pass as one of them, even if he tried desperately.
Imagine a rooftop party on the Upper West Side in the early 90s. It’s just down the street from the Metropolitan Ballet. You could even be imagining one of Trump’s properties.
The wealthy and powerful from the fashion and political worlds are hobnobbing in expensive clothes, discussing important topics and sipping wine. In walks Donald Trump with his new girlfriend to try to make conversation with a cluster of guests. Perhaps the first question lobbed his way would be “Donald, this property is so great, right next to the ballet! Have you caught the new season yet? The new choreographer is fantastic isn’t he?”
However awkwardly the next two minutes play out in your head, I bet you can almost hear the whispered comments after Donald has wandered off. “I heard he actually watches pro wrestling.” “Did you see his new girlfriend? I wonder where she bought those!” “And what on Earth is going on with his hair?”
I think it still burns Donald that he was never really accepted in those circles because of his failure to perform the necessary displays of taste, nuance and intelligence. I think it also bothers him (or at least it used to) to know that it is a swath of fellow cultural party rejects who now keep his approval ratings afloat. This was never the crowd he was hoping to impress—but perhaps this has blossomed into a mutual love affair, or maybe he is still seething deep down, vainly trying to convince himself that this is where the real party was all along.
This reluctant romance can be tracked by his relationship with WWE. His casinos hosted Wrestlemania IV and V in 1988 and 1989. Trump sat with a wide grin on the sidelines in 1988 but didn’t step into character (as himself) until 2007, when he ended up shaving Vince McMahan’s head and body slamming men in tights. Trump’s uneasy rationalization of this was nakedly on display when he departed from the teleprompter during an Ohio rally in 2018 to declare that the crowd was the real elite, with the toys and lifestyles to make them the targets of jealousy. Trump’s role as avatar for this angst was plainly expressed in his closing line: “I became president and they (the elite) didn’t. Meaning you became president!”
Back at that rooftop party in the 90s, young Donald Trump’s response to my imagined question about the new choreographer at the ballet would surely have been some lie about how much he was enjoying the new season, despite not having actually seen a single performance. Maybe he would have referenced some other ill-suited ballet term just to try to pull off the illusion of sophistication. Donald Trump is a liar.
But “everybody” lies about that kind of thing. That kind of lie is almost forgivable, tempting one to wink, lean in and whisper, “Yeah, the 129th chapter of Moby Dick was my favorite too.” But what the Trump base now revels in together is knowing that the rooftop party is full of hypocrites and the data (if we could see it) would reveal that they sneakily watch instant karma bodyslam YouTube clips on their phones during the ballet intermission, cheat on their wives with the hot young neighbor, take dirty money when they think no one is watching, attend private late night hotel casting couches to get ahead in their entertainment careers, and might even secretly wish they had a girlfriend who looked a little like Donald’s. And now Trump can call them all out because he’s given up on being accepted.
When Donald Trump tries to moralize or shame others you can almost sense the disingenuous of it. It’s a trap—he wants to be called out every time. This is otherwise known as the art of trolling. If there is a genius skill that Trump can be said to possess, it’s this one. Criticize Obama for golfing too much, then golf just as much, but never apologize or explain when you are called out for it? Parade around declaring the virtues of American-made products, while selling TRUMP 2020 campaign posters that were made in China? You can just see Trump’s troll face now. It’s almost as if the initial criticism were actually intended to expose the kind of hero worship that people lavished upon Obama as a lie. Obama’s just like the rest of us slobs when the cameras aren’t rolling—or, at least, that’s what Trump wants to believe.
Within the insane whirlwind of the Trump presidency, one moment stands out as perfectly illustrative of my thesis. Trump was asked to answer a question at a time when the news cycle was dominated by the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud and the Saudi regime.
People’s horror and outrage were at their height. Microphones were pointed at Donald Trump and people asked all kinds of appropriately moralizing and shaming questions, such as How could you associate with this brutal authoritarian? These questions were met with appalling indifference and hand waving, which rightfully drove the pundits into a fervor about Trump’s fetish for dictators. But then someone asked the real question: “Are you going to move forward with the arms deal with Saudi Arabia?”
The US relationship with Saudi Arabia is a topic of fierce debate. On paper, and in practice, Saudi Arabia’s activities and way of life are so antithetical to so-called American ideals that one wonders why we consider them an ally at all and don’t immediately sever all ties. There are two general paths to take in trying to answer the reporter’s question. The first is to speak about “global stability and security involving complicated alliances, including the Israel dynamic, which depends on our relationship with the kingdom remaining intact.” This allows the speaker to perform a kind of balancing act, to include a lot of moral condemnation and head shaking, while pretending not to realise that the reporter has just asked a simple yes or no question.
The other path is much simpler. It is to point out that they have oil and money. Duh.
For every major politician faced with this kind of question before—from Reagan through to Obama—only the first path could be taken, at least out loud. Their answers would have contained a flurry of moral condemnation and concern, together with a nod towards the complex strategic relationships in the Middle East and an assertion of dedication to working on strengthening those relationships. In other words, a noble lie.
They’re spending 110 billion dollars purchasing military equipment and other things. If we don’t sell it to them, they’ll say “Well, thank you very much. We’ll buy it from Russia,” or “Thank you very much. We’ll buy it from China.” That doesn’t help us. Not when it comes to jobs and not when it comes to our companies losing out on that work.
I remember watching that and thinking, “Wait, he can’t just say that? Can he?”
After a clarifying question about whether he would impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia in response to the killing, Trump was even more plain: “I would not be in favor of stopping a country from spending 110 billion dollars, which is an all-time record, and letting Russia have that money and letting China have that money.”
Yeah, he was just saying it. And, even more shockingly, he cited a number. Trump is such a liar that he doesn’t even know what he’s supposed to lie about.
Now, most of us don’t have to weigh up the murder of a journalist against the loss of 110 billion dollars in our everyday decisions. But, at the heart of Trump’s response was a kind of elephant-in-the-room honesty. He could have just as easily answered, “Hell yeah, I’m taking the money. Wouldn’t you?”
This boils down to the most basic and most common moral test: do the ends justify the means? This moral test can take comically sinister forms in psychology labs, where subjects are asked questions such as “Would you give a random stranger on the other side of the wall a small electric shock that will only hurt a little for $10? … $100? … $1,000? … $10,000? What about if they aren’t even on the other side of the wall but on the other side of the world and it will hurt less than a flea bite?”
Of course, when you raise the stakes from a harmless electric shock to an actual killing I hope you would only be remotely tempted by a figure with several more zeros. And if you loudly protest that no figure would ever tempt you and that anyone who would be tempted ought to be eternally shamed, it would be best to remember the lessons of Everybody Lies and be prepared to cast shame on Obama, Clinton, George W. Bush and everyone else who danced down the first path on the Saudi alliance question countless times. World politics is messy and 110,000,000,000 dollars and thousands of American manufacturing jobs is a lot of zeroes.
We all make small selfish decisions every day: passing cars in the turn-only lane because the guy that you’ll cut off up ahead won’t know that it was intentional, staying silent when you notice that the cashier forgot to ring up an item in your bag, or fudging an hour or two on your employee time card. When the decision involves your family, the selfishness becomes even easier to justify. What would you do to give your kids a better chance at getting into a top school? Forget the obvious direct payments to corrupt admissions officials that make the news. Consider the more practical kind of utilitarian maths which many of us face every day. Would you take a high paying advertising job for a cigarette company, which might be a tad unethical and unclean, if that money would pay for a year of your child’s education? You sure about that?
A whole bunch of people may hear Trump’s answer about the Saudi arms deal and think to themselves, “Hell, I’d take the money too. I take way less than that every day.” If someone claims the opposite when the data shows otherwise they’d fit my definition of a liar. In a sense, they’d be like all those millions of final chapter of Moby Dick “readers” out there. Remember, that describes pretty much everyone. If that’s you right now, don’t sweat it too hard.
But many don’t stop there.
The cancel-culture mobs come for prominent figures like comedians, politicians, journalists, actors and musicians and even for unremarkable people in their own social circles and communities. They operate with a kind of moral purity, while loudly signaling that they never take the dirty money and never will. They’re often championed by prominent celebrity voices and buoyed up by hordes of young idealists, who haven’t yet had to weigh many difficult common life choices, choices that may one day reveal that the price they’d take to make a quick exception to their cherished moral principles may be lower than they now insist.
The more well positioned figures lead a crusade of shaming and condemnation, complete with laughter and satire, using their carefully chosen targets to quiet the guilty rattling of skeleton bones in their closets, which are packed with unread final chapters of Moby Dick, dirty deeds performed for money or access, and secret envy of the playboy lifestyle.
Trump supporters like to repeat the refrain that they really hate politicians and Donald Trump is not a politician. What they mean when they say politician is hypocrite. They also love owning the libs. This is the battle cry of those who want hypocrites to get their comeuppance.
Consider again the question about the Saudi arms deal. But this time pretend a politician is answering it. You can imagine what that would sound like or just go back and listen to the answers that Obama gave, which were elegant and included phrases about “cooperating on countering terrorism,” “preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon” and “continuing to deepen our cooperation on issues like education, clean energy, science, and climate change.” You get the idea: Obama took the usual first path answer, while simultaneously quietly shaking hands and making a 60 billion dollar arms deal with the bloodthirsty Saudi Arabian leadership.
Given Stephens-Davidowitz’ data about how many people finish articles, it is unlikely that many are still reading. But, if you are, there is one important final thing to mention. None of this essay is meant to defend Trump or his presidency. I consider the entire Trump phenomenon to be a disaster. The situation we have found ourselves in as a nation, in which the psychology of hypocrite resentment rules the day, at the cost of crowning a clueless liar president, is severely unhealthy and dangerous.
If you compare complex global decisions like Saudi arms deals to the daily moral dilemmas we all face when we participate in harmful means for what we convince ourselves are justified ends—such as the morally compromising jobs we work to put food on the table and the small corners we cut for selfish reasons—you may begin to see the deeper picture. Perhaps you will start to translate the Trump tells it like it is endorsement of his base into something more like Trump is a liar, but so am I and so is everybody else. And there’s something honest about that.
Oh and about that Saudi arms deal that Trump made. It hasn’t earned anywhere close to the 110 billion dollar amount he promised—Trump’s a liar. But he’s not a hypocrite.