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Pointing Out Hypocrisy Can Spur Social Change

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Group of civil rights protestors


People who value equality fail to support civil rights. 


Making people aware that their values and behaviors do not align motivates them to change their ways.


In the 1960s, many social psychologists studied how prejudice, stereotypes, and other factors hindered the civil rights movement. Milton Rokeach was one of these scientists. His insight was that making people aware that their acts did not reflect their attitudes—that their walk didn’t match their talk—could rouse them to participate in the movement.

In this experiment, college students first ranked how much they valued freedom and equality, and then indicated how much they personally supported the civil rights movement. For participants randomly assigned to the inconsistency condition, the experimenter pointed out that the majority of participants valued freedom over equality, and yet they did not actively support civil rights. The experimenter then opined that this discrepancy suggests people care about their own freedom, but not the freedom of others. 

Participants randomly assigned to the control condition simply ranked their values without learning whether they aligned with their support of the civil rights movement.

A year and half later, Rokeach found that 25.88% of participants in the inconsistency condition joined or wrote supportive letters to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), while only 10.65% of participants in the control condition heeded the NAACP’s call to action. Almost two years after the study, students in the inconsistent condition were also more likely to be taking classes about intergroup relations. 

Why This Works

We tend to feel good about ourselves when our actions are consistent with our thoughts, but we tend to feel bad when what we do is inconsistent with what we think. Pointing out the dissonance between our actions and thoughts can cause us to feel disappointed in ourselves. To relieve this negative feeling, we may change our behavior so that it is consonant with our values, attitudes, beliefs, and other thoughts.

Researchers first discovered the power of self-threats to change behavior in the 1960s during the civil rights movement. Fifty years later, the technique still works, and has been applied to promote safe sex (see Aronson, Fried, & Stone, 1991), water conservation (see Dickerson, Thibodeau, Aronson, & Miller, 1992), and other good deeds.

When This Works Best

Self-threats work best when people want their behaviors and attitudes to align. Research in other cultures has shown that middle-class European Americans desire thought-behavior consistency across a broader range of situations than do people in many other cultures, such as working-class European America (see Conner Snibbe & Markus, 2005) and middle-class Japan (see Kitayama, Conner Snibbe, Markus, & Suzuki, 2004). In cultures and situations that do not stress thought-behavior consistency, self-threats may not be as effective.

Original Study

Rokeach, M. (1971). Long-range experimental modification of values, attitudes, and behavior. American Psychologist, 26(5), 453.

See Also

Aronson, E., Fried, C., & Stone, J. (1991). Overcoming denial and increasing the intention to use condoms through the induction of hypocrisy. American Journal of Public Health, 81(12), 1636-1638.

Conner Snibbe, A.L. & Markus, H.R. (2005). You can't always get what you want: Educational attainment, agency, and choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 703-720.

Dickerson, C. A., Thibodeau, R., Aronson, E., & Miller, D. (1992). Using cognitive dissonance to encourage water conservation. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 22(11), 841-854.

Kitayama, S., Conner Snibbe, A. C., Markus, H. R., & Suzuki, T. (2004). Is there any “free” choice? Self and dissonance in two cultures. Psychological Science, 15(8), 527-533.

Related Topics

Civil Society Conflict Resolution