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Friday, December 9, 2022

Neural and Cognitive Signatures of Guilt Predict Hypocritical Blame

Yu, H., Contreras-Huerta, L. S., et al. (2022).
Psychological Science, 0(0).


A common form of moral hypocrisy occurs when people blame others for moral violations that they themselves commit. It is assumed that hypocritical blamers act in this manner to falsely signal that they hold moral standards that they do not really accept. We tested this assumption by investigating the neurocognitive processes of hypocritical blamers during moral decision-making. Participants (62 adult UK residents; 27 males) underwent functional MRI scanning while deciding whether to profit by inflicting pain on others and then judged the blameworthiness of others’ identical decisions. Observers (188 adult U.S. residents; 125 males) judged participants who blamed others for making the same harmful choice to be hypocritical, immoral, and untrustworthy. However, analyzing hypocritical blamers’ behaviors and neural responses shows that hypocritical blame was positively correlated with conflicted feelings, neural responses to moral standards, and guilt-related neural responses. These findings demonstrate that hypocritical blamers may hold the moral standards that they apply to others.

Statement of Relevance

Hypocrites blame other people for moral violations they themselves have committed. Common perceptions of hypocrites assume they are disingenuous and insincere. However, the mental states and neurocognitive processes underlying hypocritical blamers’ behaviors are not well understood. We showed that people who hypocritically blamed others reported stronger feelings of moral conflict during moral decision-making, had stronger neural responses to moral standards in lateral prefrontal cortex, and exhibited more guilt-related neurocognitive processes associated with harming others. These findings suggest that some hypocritical blamers do care about the moral standards they use to condemn other people but sometimes fail to live up to those standards themselves, contrary to the common philosophical and folk perception.


In this study, we developed a laboratory paradigm to precisely quantify hypocritical blame, in which people blame others for committing the same transgressions they committed themselves (Todd, 2019). At the core of this operationalization of hypocrisy is a discrepancy between participants’ moral judgments and their behaviors in a moral decision-making task. Therefore, we measured participants’ choices in an incentivized moral decision-making task that they believed had real impact on their own monetary payoff and painful electric shocks delivered to a receiver. We then compared those choices with moral judgments they made a week later of other people in the same choice context. By comparing participants’ judgments with their own behaviors, we were able to quantify the degree to which they judge other people more harshly for making the same choices they themselves made previously (i.e., hypocritical blame).