Boris Johnson, long famous for brushing aside accusations of misrepresentation, deception or outright lying which, far from slowing his rise, seemed only to bolster his image as an incorrigible thug, suddenly faces potential political death for the the very charge to which he had seemed immune.
Even his critics seem surprised at how quickly the public and politicians have turned on Mr Johnson, Britain’s Prime Minister, over accusations he lied about attending parties at his official residence in May 2020 who violated his own government’s lockdown orders.
But while some of his past lies may have been more harmful to others around him, this one hits on a particular sensibility that psychologists say holds a special power to infuriate.
Moral hypocrisy — behaving badly while simultaneously harassing the rest of us for doing good — evokes a level of anger that neither lying nor wrongdoing brings about on its own, studies show repeatedly. .
Mr Johnson’s true sin, in this account, drove Britons to self-private for the common good, as his office staged events that violated this shared spirit of sacrifice and, risking viral spread, undermined its effects.
He acknowledged this, telling Parliament earlier this month: ‘I know the rage they feel against me and the government I lead when they think that in Downing Street itself the rules are not properly followed by the people who make the rules.”
As if to underscore the backlash such transgressions can bring, tennis star Novak Djokovic is simultaneously facing, after his own long history of controversies that never quite caught up with him, serious professional damage as a result of charges he fabricated or obscured in his waiver request. to Australia’s Covid vaccination requirement.
The incident has become a flashpoint in global debates over vaccine rules. But it also inspired fierce anger perhaps in part because, like Mr Johnson, Mr Djokovic was looking to benefit from society’s adherence to those rules, which made Australia safe enough to host the tournament in which he had to play. And he did it by bending or breaking those same rules to satisfy his own desires to avoid the vaccine and travel freely.
“Hypocrites employ a double layer of deception,” neuroscientist Erman Misirlisoy wrote in an essay about the special power of this behavior to irritate people.
The first layer: encouraging others around them to follow rules that will benefit them, even if only implicitly by signaling their support for those rules. For example, Mr. Johnson has imposed lockdowns that will improve his own security and political standing. Or Mr Djokovic telling Australian officials (and, on social media, his fans) that he is following the country’s Covid rules so he can play in his tennis tournament.
The second layer – lying about their own compliance – is so offensive because it amounts to undermining the very collective effort they demanded of others.
Writer Hannah Arendt, reflecting on society’s distaste for hypocrisy, called it “the vice of vices”. While terrible crimes might “confront us with the perplexity of radical evil,” she wrote, “only the hypocrite is truly rotten to the core.”
As Dr. Misirlisoy wrote, “It’s a recipe for hate when you get caught.”
“When you stop to think about it, it’s actually a psychological headache,” said Jillian Jordan, a psychologist at Yale University who studies this behavior. Everyone occasionally breaks social norms or rules that they otherwise uphold.
And hypocrisy is not uncommon among public figures. Athletes project regular public images while living amidst the splendor of yachts and helicopters. Mr Djokovic emphasized new age solidarity while appearing alongside Serbian ultranationalists.
Dishonesty, by itself, is also not generally very surprising. Mr Johnson made a joke of his own reputation, saying at an event in 2018: ‘My strategy is to sully my career with so many lure mistakes, no one knows which one to attack.’
But, acknowledging that there is something different about people caught pressuring others to live up to standards they despise, Mr Johnson told a reporter the same week that his whole political journey had begun by meeting left-leaning elitist students at university and feeling a “sense of outrage at their glutinous hypocrisy.
The reason, according to some psychologists, is that moral hypocrisy represents, in some way, an attack on the social contract itself.
Since our origin as a species, societies have operated on an implicit pact: each of us is better off if we all contribute to the common good, even if it means giving up certain things.
It only works if everyone trusts that everyone will follow. If that breaks down, so does each individual’s incentive to serve the common good.
In the nomadic tribes where our communal instincts evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, it was a matter of life and death. Without trusting cooperation, the group would perish.
(The pandemic has returned these life-or-death stakes, not to mention the imperative of individual sacrifice for the well-being of the community, in the form of masks, vaccines and social distancing, which perhaps explains why sensitivity to moral hypocrisy suddenly seems so acute And Britain’s cultural emphasis on fair play, rule-abiding and sacrifice may further heighten these sensitivities.)
Moral hypocrites turn this spirit of shared obligation against the very group it is meant to serve. They are hoarding the fruits of collective sacrifice for themselves – Mr. Johnson enjoying a party during the lockdown, Mr. Djokovic tossing himself between societies secured for him by grueling restrictions – and in a way that undermines benefits for everybody.
Understanding Boris Johnson’s recent troubles
And, when their hypocrisy is exposed, it sends a dangerous signal: you, too, can enjoy the benefits of everyone else’s work while pretending to follow. For the rest of the group, condemning the hypocrite in the strongest possible terms is an act of self-defense, a way to deter others from trying to do the same.
Perhaps that is why, Dr. Jordan found in a series of studies, people will condemn an act of moral hypocrisy far more vehemently than any other kind of transgression tested by his team.
The core offense of moral hypocrisy, and the outrage it provokes, is well captured in a photo that has accompanied Mr Johnson’s party social media reporting and discussions all month. .
It shows Queen Elizabeth II at a funeral ceremony for her husband Prince Philip, sitting masked and alone on an otherwise empty pew, dutifully obeying the lockdown rules that Mr Johnson’s staff had breached with a party, it turned out the night before.
Mr Johnson’s parties, of course, did little to cause the pandemic which has forced the Queen to practice socially distanced mourning. But the implied affront to his sacrifice, and the national sacrifice he represented, was too much for some Britons.
“I can only renew my apologies,” Mr Johnson said, in a highly unusual show of contrition towards the monarch, “both to her majesty and to the country”.