The Pot and the Kettle – Both Still Black

It’s an age-old phenomenon: people are guilty of the very fault they find in others. In psychology terms, ethical dissonance. In colloquial terms, the pot calling the kettle black. Recently, a team of psychologists evaluated this complex ethical behavior and assessed moral regulation and ethical behavior in activities that involved loyalty and honesty. The results are published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

The premise of the entire phenomenon is that people lie, cheat, and steal more often than they want to admit. Even seemingly inconsequential behaviors test our moral and ethical boundaries: taking too many items to the express lane at the grocery store, bringing home extra pens or paper from the office’s supply closet, or inflating business expenses for reimbursement. (How many times have you done something like this, but still get annoyed when other people do it?)

Everyone wants to maintain a positive self-image — both publicly and privately. Sometimes, maintaining this image requires self-deception by ignoring one’s own wrong behavior. If one cannot distance themselves from the behavior, he or she may adjust his or her own ethical standards to accommodate for the behavior or justify the action with rationalizations.

Together, all of these ostensibly normal traits of human nature blur the criteria for judging what is right and wrong — both in one’s self and in others. In the case of the “pot calling the kettle black,” people cannot deny their own misconduct or unethical failure, presenting an inconsistency between their own moral values and their action. The authors of the recent study report that, instead of behaving more ethically and rectifying the behavior, people judge others even more harshly and present themselves as even more virtuous and ethical.

While an interesting read from a theoretical point of view, this research only clarifies what we already intuitively understand as part of our social reality. We see this phenomenon everyday — at work, running errands, driving — and in every profession — politics, health care, business.

So, what are the pot and the kettle to do about it? Maybe not much. The concept of denying and distancing one’s self from his own wrongdoings is an attempt to save one’s positive image – a deep-seated (and possibly neural-based) need to appear honest and principled to the rest of society: a moral survival of the appearing-to-be fittest. Thus, the pot will likely never become a moral change-agent, but he will continue to call out kettles around the world for all major and minor moral transgressions — color-related and otherwise.


Barkan R, Ayal S, Gino F, & Ariely D (2012). The Pot Calling the Kettle Black: Distancing Response to Ethical Dissonance. Journal of experimental psychology. General PMID: 22409664

Stacey G, Johnston K, Stickley T, & Diamond B (2011). How do nurses cope when values and practice conflict? Nursing times, 107 (5), 20-3 PMID: 21473313

Tjeltveit AC, & Gottlieb MC (2010). Avoiding the road to ethical disaster: Overcoming vulnerabilities and developing resilience. Psychotherapy (Chicago, Ill.), 47 (1), 98-110 PMID: 22402004

van Veen V, Krug MK, Schooler JW, & Carter CS (2009). Neural activity predicts attitude change in cognitive dissonance. Nature neuroscience, 12 (11), 1469-74 PMID: 19759538

Image via silver-john / Shutterstock.

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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