An embarrassing confession. I stick to a perfect diet, until I don’t! I am proud of the fact that I avoid certain foods, and I often say in a restaurant, “no thanks, I don’t want dessert, I don’t eat sugar”, while giving a look of righteous judgment to my dinner partner. Yet, before I know it, another part of me is triggered, and I’m helping myself to “just a bit” of their delicious chocolate mousse cake. Then I rationalize it, “well, I don’t want to be a killjoy…and you can’t always be too strict!”
We see hypocrisy as a character flaw. In our minds, it’s a willingness to appear morally virtuous, while being able to do what the hell you want. “Do as I say, not as I do”, the old saying goes. We assume a conscious self interest, of “having your cake and eating it too”.
Yet science may have a different explanation.
There is an interesting concept in psychology that is so cool, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around it. It is called “State Dependent Learning and Memory” (SDLM) This means something like, what you remember in one state of mind, you may not in another. Remembering something works best when you are in the same state as when you learned it. For example, you may determine you are going into the living room to get, say, your glasses, but once you are in there, be at a complete loss as to what you went in there for. You go back outside, and of course, you remember the keys! The change of venue triggers a different “state”.
So what does this have to do with hypocrisy?
Many people, in fact most of us, seem to have different “parts”. We could characterize this parts as, for example, a serious side, being flirtatious, fear of strangers, loving humanity, or dark thoughts. Sometimes, we need to be in a “mode”, to navigate the demands of society: professional, wife, friend, mother.
Typically, most of us can transition from one “self” to the other with relative ease, as there is a uniting memory of “self” undergirding our personality. But, thanks in part to SDLM, we can also can compartmentalize our parts, so that they seem to run on different memory systems. What we perceive to be negative parts of ourselves (often that are quite entrenched) that hold painful memories (such as traumatized parts), that we are ashamed of (such as phobic parts), or parts that cope with negative emotion (such as addicted parts) can more easily be disavowed and “dis-remembered”.
In these cases, SDLM can make our awareness of our inconsistencies “fuzzy”, so that we may feel perfectly righteous about our philosophy of high value characterizing one part of ourselves; one of our mental states, and then go ahead and completely violate that value in another state. That is the essence of hypocrisy. When we perhaps rail against some vice, be it substance related, sex oriented, or inclined towards a negative personality trait, such as judgement of others appearance.
Once someone makes us aware our inconsistencies, we often deal with our bafflement, then shame with some type of rationalization. It’s an awful lot easier than the scary realization that we don’t really know ourselves that well! Take my “sugar” self. My dietary rigor is a fairly new “part”, and one that I have been able to sustain with relative success and with pride. However, there’s another part of me that’s been around a lot longer – the one that is a kid, that loves the dopamine rush of that delicious, velvety chocolate! That part can usurp my “good” part before I even know what happened.
As I am inclined, I will direct this back to the spiritual realm, with a quote from local trauma expert, Dr. Frank W. Putnam, whose book The Way We Are – How States of Mind Influence our Identities, Personality and Potential for Change (2016) I am getting some of this inspiration to write about our “parts”:
“We are all prime to this process to a greater or lesser extent. It is the rare person who can achieve the psychological distance work which to carefully examine the contradictions in his or her behavior. Indeed, it is just such a dispassionate self-awareness and self-reflective equanimity that is sought in the quest to achieve a state of spiritual enlightenment”
So perhaps it is only the enlightened soul who is never hypocritical!