Understanding why people ‘call the kettle black’

Almost every language has its own version of the saying about “the pot calling the kettle black.”

group psychotherapy, psychology, support group 370 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
group psychotherapy, psychology, support group 370
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Almost every language has its own version of the saying about “the pot calling the kettle black.” This includes Chinese (“The soldier that fled 50 steps mocks the one that fled 100 steps”), Portuguese (“One with torn clothes mocks the naked”), German (“One donkey calls the other one long-ears”) and Bengali (“The sieve tells the needle to mind the hole in its back”). Folk wisdom reflected in these sayings suggests people are often guilty of the very fault they identify in others.
Newspaper readers are regularly exposed to scandals exposing supposedly impeccable leading figures as sinners.
A few years ago, Dr. Rachel Barkan of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Dr. Shahar Ayal of the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, Prof. Francesca Gino of Harvard University and Prof. Dan Ariely of Duke University discussed two examples. One involved Marilee Jones, the dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The dean, known for her harsh policy toward students who puffed up their credentials, was exposed for lying about her own academic credentials and forced to resign. A second example regarded Eliot Spitzer, New York’s former governor – a promising politician who eagerly pursued organized crime, white-collar corruption and prostitution, but was then forced to resign from office after being exposed as a client of a prostitution ring.
The four researchers conjectured that the Pot/Kettle phenomenon was not reserved for public figures, but reflected a basic psychological mechanism and a general tendency to overcompensate for one’s own wrongdoing. In a new paper, the research team unraveled the underlying process of the Pot/Kettle phenomenon. They highlighted the conditions that trigger this behavior and showed its function as a tool that clears a guilty conscience and solves the experience of intense ethical dissonance.
The paper, titled “The Pot Calling the Kettle Black: A Distancing Response to Ethical Dissonance,” will appear in the the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
“We defined the Pot/Kettle phenomenon as a unique response to the experience of ethical dissonance,” said Barkan. “Dissonance is triggered by the disparity between the ethical values one believes in and a contradicting dishonest behavior one commits.
When the behavior is undeniably wrong, common solutions of dissonance such as adjustment of the belief and/or justification of the behavior are less viable. No one wants to publicly lower their moral standards, or to admit and justify ethical misconduct.
This is the point where the Pot/Kettle response kicks in. People respond by harshly denouncing others as evil and at the same time present themselves as virtuous.”
By doing so, she said, “people dissociate themselves from their misconduct and bury it as impossible and implausible.”
But does this mean that people repent? Are they really compensating for their past behavior? Do they learn their lesson and become better people? “Unfortunately our findings suggest the answer is: no, no and no,” she continued. “In contrast to internal mechanisms of moral regulation in which people genuinely emphasize ethical values, increase pro-social intentions and exhibit more honest behavior, the Pot/Kettle response is oriented to an audience rather than to the self. Our findings show this distancing behavior is based primarily on impression management. In accord with folk wisdom, the Pot/Kettle response does not involve a desire to be moral, but rather a desire to appear moral.”
The Weizmann Institute of Science has launched two new applications for iPad and Android tablet devices – one for its quarterly Hebrew magazine Hamachon and another for its online Interface magazine in English. They are among the first digital magazines in the country.
The easy-to-read quarterly magazines are geared toward the general public, featuring cutting-edge news and discoveries from the Rehovot institute, including a diverse range of topics including cancer, genetics, astrophysics, alternative energy, computer science and archeology. These digital editions provide an enhanced reading experience with added interactivity, as well as offering extra content such as images, videos, podcasts and even songs and poetry readings, Weizmann said. The apps are available free for download and subscription from the iTunes App Store and Google Play.
Geckos, those cute, greenish little reptiles that dart among plants and up walls, have the amazing ability to attach their feet to a variety of surfaces while defying gravity. Now a researcher at the University of Akron in Ohio has discovered that the self-cleaning and reuse abilities of a gecko’s foot hair could benefit man. It would be like buying duct tape that one could reuse forever without having to throw it out.
The study was published recently in the Journal of the Royal Society. The sticky-yet-clean attribute of this discovery is that the gecko toe pad can repeatedly attach to and detach from a surface. The researcher’s team discovered that the clue to a dynamic self-cleaning mechanism in gecko foot hair is the hyperextension of their toes.
“The analysis reveals that geckos have tiny sticky hairs on their toes called setaes, and due to the attaching and detaching mechanism caused by the rolling and peeling motion of their toes as they walk, they release the dirt particles, leaving their feet clean,” the researchers wrote. “The dynamic hyperextension effect of its natural toe peeling increases the speed of the cleaning to nearly twice as fast as previously perceived.”
They suggested that their discovery could inspire new applications in space or water exploration tools or in common items like duct tape or other products that use sticky properties and not only bind things together securely, but also release very easily.