Science Explains Why Our Politicians Are Such Hypocrites

Family values Congressman Christopher Lee resigned yesterday amid allegations he tried to cheat on his wife. Science has an explanation.

Republican Congressman Christopher Lee resigned from office yesterday after it was discovered he'd sent shirtless photos of himself to a woman looking for a date on Cragslist. Lee, who is married, also told the potential mate that he is single, a lobbyist, and 39 (he's actually 46 and a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives).

The Lee debacle is just the latest in a long line of hypocritical scandals—events in which major public personalities have been caught red-handed engaged in the very same acts they’ve decried in the past. Lee was a family values Republican who constantly voted to uphold the “sanctity of marriage.” Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer went after prostitution rings while visiting prostitutes himself. It happens time and again. But why?

Firstly, as you might imagine, researchers have discovered that people are more willing to grant themselves moral leeway than they are others.

In a 2008 experiment from psychologists Piercarlo Valdesolo and David DeSteno, test subjects were told they and a stranger arriving later would face two tasks: One simple photo hunt and one difficult math problem set. The subjects were then told they could decide which task they got and which the latecomer would have. Naturally, 87 of 94 participants chose the easy task for themselves. But striking was how many of those same people rated as immoral that action when initiated by someone else: “[E]very single person who made the selfish choice judged his own behavior more leniently … than that of someone else who grabbed the easy task for himself.”

People’s willingness to accept immoral actions they perpetrate also extends to people similar to them. The subjects in Valdesolo and DeSteno’s study were later given wristbands connoting a team affiliation and asked to watch the exercise again: “On average, [subjects] judged it to be unfair for someone in the other group to give himself the easy job, but they considered it fair when someone in their own group did the same thing.”

In essence, in order to get ahead easily, it’s in everyone’s nature to be hypocrites, and to accept hypocrisy from our peer group is an important part of fostering group cohesion. But science also shows that things get even worse when we’re talking about powerful people.

In a 2009 experiment published in Psychological Science, 172 volunteers were assigned high-power roles (prime minister) and low-power roles (civil servant) in a fictional country, and then asked to consider some moral dilemmas like bike theft and skirting taxes. In each of the five tests given, the more powerful characters consistently proved most hypocritical:

They disapproved of immoral behavior (e.g., the over-reporting of expenses) and yet behaved badly themselves.

For instance, when powerful characters were given an opportunity to self-report their success in a dice game, they cheated, reporting that they won more times than they actually did.


None of this is to say Congressman Lee shouldn’t have stepped down, of course. Or even that what he did wasn’t wrong. But it’s probably important to remember that, according to science, it’s very possible you could be in his shoes under the right circumstances. Perhaps you already are.