The neurological foundations of hypocrisy

As an educational psychologist, my scholarly training has focused on cognition rather than on emotion/affect; however, I’m becoming more interested in the neuroscience of emotion since reading a few papers which argue that to the degree affective phenomena can draw upon cognitive resources, affect does impact cognition.  Newsweek reports here on recent research that examines the neurological underpinnings of hypocritical behavior.

Scientists have long bickered over whether hypocrisy is driven by emotion or by reason—that is, by our gut instinct to cast a halo over ourselves, or by efforts to rationalize and justify our own transgressions. In other moral judgments, brain imaging shows, regions involved in feeling, not thinking, rule. In “the train dilemma,” for instance, people are asked whether they would throw a switch to send an out-of-control train off a track where it would kill 10 people and onto one where it would kill one. Most of us say we would. But would we heave a large man onto the track to derail the train and save the 10? Most of us say no: although the save-10-lose-one calculus is identical, the emotional component—heaving someone to his death rather than throwing an impersonal switch—is repugnant, and the brain’s emotion regions scream “Don’t!”

The role of emotion in moral judgments has upended the Enlightenment notion that our ethical sense is based on high-minded philosophy and cognition. That brings us to hypocrisy, which is almost ridiculously easy to bring out in people. In a new study that will not exactly restore your faith in human nature, psychologists David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo of Northeastern University instructed 94 people to assign themselves and a stranger one of two tasks: an easy one, looking for hidden images in a photo, or a hard one, solving math and logic problems. The participants could make the assignments themselves, or have a computer do it randomly. Then everyone was asked, how fairly did you act?, from “extremely unfairly” (1) to “extremely fairly” (7). Next they watched someone else make the assignments, and judged that person’s ethics. Selflessness was a virtual no-show: 87 out of 94 people opted for the easy task and gave the next guy the onerous one. Hypocrisy, however, showed up with bells on: every single person who made the selfish choice judged his own behavior more leniently—on average, 4.5 vs. 3.1—than that of someone else who grabbed the easy task for himself, the scientists will report in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.


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