The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines a “hypocrite” as a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings.
In this respect, I often feel deep pangs of hypocrisy during my self-improvement journey. I don’t mean this in the traditional way our society calls out hypocrisy. For example, a married, conservative politician who opposes gay marriage may have homosexual extramarital affairs. Or perhaps an environmental advocacy group inundates its members with paper junk mail. Many would unequivocally declare this behavior hypocritical.
However, if we take the meaning of hypocrisy to mean the opposite of “practice what you preach,” then I admit to frequent hypocrisy. Perhaps more of us behave more hypocritically than we like to admit.
Most of us tend to assume consistency between our beliefs and our actions. Social psychologists have a mountain of research to suggest that humans will do amazing mental gymnastics to ensure consistency between our beliefs and actions. These thought contortions stem from the psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance.
My favorite observations of cognitive dissonance came from the food service industry. Through years of employment at a country bar, a country club, and a take-home pizza joint, I encountered many smokers. For a time, I was one of those smokers. Most food service employers closely monitor their workers’ breaks on time clocks. Most offer 10-minute breaks every few hours and a 30-minute lunch after 5 hours. However, I often noticed that people who took smoke breaks took more frequent breaks overall. It hardly seemed fair.
“I wish I smoked so I could get more breaks,” I’d often say.
“Oh no, you shouldn’t smoke,” they’d reply while puffing away. “Trust me. It’s a terrible habit.”
“Then why do you smoke?”
“Well, I have to calm down somehow. It’s good for stress.”
In this case, smokers resolve their cognitive dissonance (smoking is bad –> I smoke –> I am not bad) by saying that it relieves their stress (smoking relieves stress –> I smoke –> I am not bad). In other words, they justify their otherwise poor behavior choice.
Some would describe this behavior as hypocritical. Many smokers engage in a particular behavior (smoking) while simultaneously advocating for the opposite behavior (not smoking).
However, others would disagree.
“Hypocrisy does not pertain to behaviors, but rather to moral judgments.”
They have a point. Who hasn’t engaged in a behavior that they know isn’t good for them in the long-term? I certainly have. I’ve smoked cigarettes. I’ve drunk several bottles too many and moaned “Never again!” while in the throes of a hangover. I’ve scarfed down pizza and fried chicken when the little voice in my head politely suggested that I roast some vegetables. If we keep the definition of hypocrisy too broad, then everyone will be hypocrites. And the word loses all of its power.
On the other hand, fewer people espouse anti-gay rhetoric while embroiling themselves in homosexual trysts. Perhaps we ought to consider people who behave inconsistently with their moral declarations as hypocrites. In this case, advocating against smoking due to health reasons while lighting up a cigarette would not be hypocritical. For while smoking is unhealthy, it is not a behavior one can consider right or wrong. As some libertarians would say, “As long as I don’t hurt others, I have the right to hurt myself.”
But if we extrapolate our behaviors to their impact on families, communities, and society as a whole, then how self-contained are these self-harming actions?
Smokers damage more than their own lungs. Their smoking can damage the lungs of those around them.
“Then smoke outside while your kids play inside.”
Fair enough. But what about the costs of healthcare? Smoking costs the U.S. an average of $170 billion dollars in direct medical costs.
“But smokers pay higher health insurance premiums.”
The ones who have insurance certainly do. But what about the ones who don’t? Or the ones with inadequate coverage? Or the ones who ultimately file for bankruptcy due to unpaid medical debt? Or the ones whose medical debt falls out of statute in 3-10 years? Or the billions of dollars of potential economic growth wasted by hospital stays and premature death?
When considered on a grand scale, health concerns like smoking and obesity cost society dearly. They are more than personal choices. In fact, one could go as far as arguing it is wrong to smoke and wrong to eat yourself into obesity. It produces a net loss on society as a whole.
Hypocrisy is a word that people flippantly throw around without considering the implications of its meaning. In some respects, we can all be hypocrites. We are all prone to behave in ways that contradict our beliefs and values. We don’t do it because we are flawed and worthy of condemnation. We do it because we are human. In other words, hypocrisy is a stone and most of us have some glass in our house.
Instead, we may benefit from listening to our hypocrisies. Decades of cognitive dissonance research suggest that we already address our hypocrisies on an unconscious level. But the more we can consciously acknowledge discrepancies between our beliefs and our behavior, the more we can cultivate a more consistent sense of self.
And a more consistent self is likely happier, healthier, less anxious, and more self-confident.