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Targeting Hypocrisy Promotes Safer Sex

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More than 1 in 3 Americans have a sexually transmitted infection (STI), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Pointing out people’s hypocrisy causes them to practice safer sex.


Elliot Aronson, a social psychologist, and his colleagues recruited 80 sexually active young adults, allegedly to help develop a new AIDS prevention program. Aronson’s team then randomly assigned participants to one of four conditions.

In the hypocrisy condition, Aronson exploited the fact that many people talk the talk of safe sex, but do not walk the walk. Participants first described recent situations when they failed to use condoms. Next, they composed speeches about the virtues of condom use, and then delivered their speeches to an audience of high school students. By pointing out the mismatch between participants’ actions and beliefs, Aronson hoped participants would change their actions—that they would make their walk and talk align.

In the preaching condition, participants preached the virtues of condom use without first admitting their own failures to practice what they preach.

In the past failure condition, participants described their past failure to use condoms and then composed a speech that they silently rehearsed to themselves, but never delivered.

Finally, in the control condition, participants composed and silently rehearsed pro-condom speeches.

Did feeling hypocritical change participants’ behavior? Yes, it did.

Three months after the study, the researchers found that participants made to feel hypocritical reported the most condom usage. Participants in the hypocrisy condition reported using condoms in 64% of sexual encounters after the study ended, compared to 54% in the preaching condition, 26% in the past failure condition, and 51% in the control condition. Participants in the hypocrisy condition were also most likely to say they used condoms to prevent STIs.

In a follow-up study,  Aronson and his colleagues found that 83% of participants made to feel hypocritical about their safe-sex practices bought condoms, compared to 33% in the preaching condition, 50% in the past-failure condition, and 44% in the control condition. 

Why This Works

Realizing that you are not practicing what you preach causes you to feel like a hypocrite. The sting of hypocrisy can push people to make positive behavior changes, like practicing safer sex. 

When This Works Best

This intervention works when people confront the fact that they are hypocrites—not just when they are being hypocritical. This intervention would not work with people who openly acknowledge that their behavior is at odds with what they know they should be doing. 

The Original Study 

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.

See Also

Stone, J., Aronson, E., Crain, A. L., Winslow, M. P., & Fried, C. B. (1994). Inducing hypocrisy as a means of encouraging young adults to use condoms. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin20(1), 116-128.

Dickerson, C. A., Thibodeau, R., Aronson, E., & Miller, D. (1992). Using cognitive dissonance to encourage water conservation. Journal of Applied Social Psychology22(11), 841-854.

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Photo CC by Calvin Fleming