Article | Journal of Experimental Psychology: General

The Pot Calling the Kettle Black: Distancing Response to Ethical Dissonance

by R. Barkan, S. Ayal, F. Gino and D. Ariely


Six studies demonstrate the "pot calling the kettle black" phenomenon whereby people are guilty of the very fault they identify in others. Recalling an undeniable ethical failure, people experience ethical dissonance between their moral values and their behavioral misconduct. Our findings indicate that to reduce ethical dissonance, individuals use a double-distancing mechanism. Using an overcompensating ethical code, they judge others more harshly and present themselves as more virtuous and ethical (Studies 1, 2, 3). We show this mechanism is exclusive for ethical dissonance and is not triggered by salience of ethicality (Study 4), general sense of personal failure, or ethically neutral cognitive dissonance (Study 5). Finally, it is characterized by some boundary conditions (Study 6). We discuss the theoretical contribution of this work to research on moral regulation and ethical behavior.

Keywords: ethical dissonance; cognitive dissonance; moral judgment; impression management; Unethical Behavior; Values and Beliefs; Moral Sensibility; Cognition and Thinking; Research; Behavior; Judgments;


Barkan, R., S. Ayal, F. Gino, and D. Ariely. "The Pot Calling the Kettle Black: Distancing Response to Ethical Dissonance." Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 141, no. 4 (November 2012): 757–773.