Wearing Away Your Path – A Plea Against Habit

SemesterProject 075This a short version of a paper written for the Semester Project of Media Technology (Leiden). It is the theoretical background for the installation ‘Change Course’, made together with D. Krijnen and D. Oldenhof

Interpretations of Integrity and Hypocrisy

“I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good
all the time. That would be hypocrisy.” (O. Wilde)

The terms ‘integrity’ and ‘hypocrisy’ both have several subtly different meanings. The most common definition of integrity is the adherence to a strong ethical code (1) – notable for the fact that the exact nature of this code doesn’t matter, as long as it is strongly and consistently adhered to. It can also mean a whole and undivided state (2), and as such contributes to an interpretation requiring accuracy and consistency in one’s actions and statements.
Hypocrisy derives from the ancient Greek word for actor (3). Through the years it has acquired a negative connotation to mean ‘saying one thing and doing another’ (4), or a failure to follow your own principles (5). A subtly different, related meaning is ‘claiming to hold certain beliefs or other characteristics that one does not actually hold’ (6). This does not necessarily require a discrepancy of words and actions, just one of words and thoughts. It should be noted that, depending on the definition, this discrepancy can be a conscious choice (7) as well as an involuntary occurrence.
Due to the major social aspect of an accusation of hypocrisy (self-accusation can be described as cognitive dissonance (8)) the accusers do not have direct access to the moral or ethical code of the accused and thus have to rely on their statements and actions. The installation ‘Change Course’ engages with how this outsider construction of someone’s moral code is experienced by that person, and how their life can be formed avoiding accusations of hypocrisy.

Psychology and Sociology: a Recipe for Hypocrisy

RecipebOur research of literature on psychological and social aspects of hypocrisy resulted in a summary of the mechanisms at play. This diagram shows the various mechanisms scrutinizing a person’s (C) moral code (A), claims (D) and actions (E) for inconsistencies (9, 10). Moral code is used here as a shorthand for all principles, feelings, virtues, and other characteristics that a person possesses. In the case of a perceived moral code (G), it refers to the qualities a person seems to possess based on their past claims and actions.
When a person notices inconsistencies in their own behavior, cognitive dissonance (B) kicks in to right the situation by either changing behavior or reasoning the inconsistencies away (11). This is an unconscious mechanism in our brain that rewards consistency in thoughts and actions as a way to make sense of the world (12).
Society (F) tries to make sense of people’s behavior as well, comparing actions and statements with the perceived moral code of a person, or even with other moral codes (H). When these do not match, the social punishment is an accusation of hypocrisy (K). All of this culminates in a high personal and social value of consistency. For example, companies trying to be philanthropic in addition to being economically responsible run the risk of being perceived as hypocrites (13, 14), as these goals are often seen as inconsistent with each other.
As being consistent is seen as such an important quality, it can keep you from following your preferred course through life (15). Especially over time this can be very limiting, as new information and experiences might cause you to want to change behavior.
Psychological research has shown that cognitive dissonance (16) can be induced (17) by asking people to make a public advocacy statement about a pro-social behavior (commitment induction) and then reminding them of past failures to perform the advocated behavior (mindfulness induction) (18, 19). This introduces the idea of temporality as an ingredient of hypocrisy – publicly saying one thing with the memory of having done otherwise in the past triggers the social and personal control mechanisms
that then try to keep future behavior consistent with the claims you made. Because of social punishment (20) and cognitive dissonance it becomes increasingly difficult to choose a different course.

Philosophy – Do not go where the path may lead…

“When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do?” (J. M. Keynes)

The question immediately arises as to whether inconsistency over time is indeed a form of
hypocrisy. Perhaps it is rather the desirable implementation of new information that can lead to different conclusions and behavior. Someone eating meat while saying they are a vegetarian might be a hypocrite. But if they eat meat and at a later time say they are a vegetarian – or the other way around – is it still hypocrisy? They could, after all, simply have gathered extra information in the meantime that made them change their mind.
American poet and leader of the philosophical Transcendentalist movement Ralph Waldo
Emerson warned the individual against conformity and consistency (21).
Transcendentalism includes the idea that all human beings are basically good, and the ‘purest’ state one can be in is that of total selfreliance and non-conformity. Emerson therefore encouraged people to say what they think today, and say again what they think tomorrow, even if it is the complete opposite. They shouldn’t be afraid of the
social pressure against changing your mind on the basis of new information:

“The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them. But why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then?” (21)

If everyone sticks to the same choices and the same behavior, whatever the context and
disregarding new insights, the future is basically fixed. ‘Change Course’ is based on this idea of the individual as a singular unit. The individual is forced into a character role and a narrative by both their own brain and society. The narrative doesn’t leave much room for character-inconsistencies, abrupt changes in opinion, or likewise. It is therefore relatively static.

The Installation: ‘Change Course’

‘Change Course’ focuses on the interplay between past, present, and future actions and the perceived value of consistency. It is based on the idea of being steered in a certain direction by your own and others’ judgements of your past actions. The title ‘Change Course’ – which is also the statement of this work – can be understood both as a direct order and as a friendly recommendation. The installation perceptualizes the invisible, life-shaping power of these judgements with a metaphor that conveys their dependence on past actions, their suffocating nature and the possibility to break free (22), but only through considerable effort.
semprSetup2The user acts as the driver, steering a remote controlled car around a track. The driver is only able to see what is happening through a first person view, while the audience can oversee the whole track and the car. The track is projected onto the floor and changes visually according to the choices made by the driver, reflecting back to Emerson’s statement that ‘your past acts are used to compute your orbit’ (21). Following the same path for multiple rounds results in a smaller track, also reflected in the force-feedback of the steering wheel trying to get the car back on the average path of the car. This adds a physical component to the struggle of trying to be inconsistent. In this way, the limitations that are caused by past actions are made apparent to the driver both visually and haptic. Going against the force-feedback gets increasingly harder, but the result of acceptance is an unbreakable routine. semprSetup1
By being able to oversee the whole track, the audience has more information than the driver, resulting in a power imbalance between them. The driver only sees and feels the walls closing in but is aware of the possibility that onlookers are present. T
he driver thus might feel judged on how they perform in the installation. The interesting question is whether they decide to follow the path determined for them, resulting in easier driving, or go against it with the effort required to do so.

Conclusion: Plea against habit

‘Change Course’ can be understood as a plea against habit, an illustration of what happens
when you are afraid to change your ways. The installation leaves the interpretation of events partly up to the driver, but is ultimately favorable towards inconsistency. Following the same path again and again is easier to do, but in the end leads to the complete removal of agency. Being inconsistent requires physical effort, but keeps you in control of the wheel.
The interpretation of inconsistency over time as being a form of hypocrisy is not without
opposition. Urging people to allow themselves to be inconsistent – a plea against habit – can therefore be seen as hypocrisy-positive, but also as declaring this specific interpretation of hypocrisy to be incorrect. Both are fitting in regard to this installation.
The effect of being watched while devising and trying strategies to drive in the installation could make people reflect on their own reasons for following certain paths in life and how social judgement and their own habits influence this. The choice the driver makes while deciding how to approach the installation is reflective of the choices everyone makes in daily life: do you wear away your path, or do you change course every once in a while?

“Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead.” (A. Huxley)

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22. Merritt, A. C., Effron, D. A., & Monin, B. (2010). Moral self‐licensing: When being good frees us to be bad. Social and Personality Psychology Compass,4(5), 344-357.

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