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When hypocrisy is rewarded: The costs of moral flexibility outweigh the costs of hypocrisy
Despite the well-documented costs of word-deed misalignment, hypocrisy permeates our personal, professional and political lives. Why? We explore one potential explanation: the costs of moral flexibility outweigh the costs of hypocrisy, making hypocritical moral absolutism a preferred social strategy to admissions of nuance. We study this phenomenon in the context of honesty. Across five preregistered studies (N = 3080), we find that actors are rewarded more for taking absolute positions (“It is never okay to lie”) that they fail to uphold than for taking more flexible positions (“It is sometimes okay to lie”) that align with behavior. Although few people take absolute positions against deception themselves, they still reward actors who do because they perceive absolute stances as credible signals of future honesty, regardless of inconsistent behavior. This research deepens our understanding of honesty and hypocrisy and helps to explain the persistence of unrealistic moral absolutism in our social world.