Once when I was having a hard time a guy said to me, "I'm sorry you're having a hard time, I'll pray for you," in a way that made it clear that he was glad I was having a hard time because it gave him the opportunity to pray for me and feel good about himself.

I am interested in this phenomenon but also the much more general (probably universal) phenomenon of human beings finding justification for things they want to do, often by lying to themselves about the utility of the behavior to other people.

The best single word I can think of for this is contrived, but it is not close to precise. Similarly, dissembling, insincere, and so on don't really cut it.

I also looked at this list of cognitive biases but was unable to find one that expressed this idea.

Is there a single word for this? If not, a short phrase?

  • Why not simply disguised selfishness? – user129823 Jul 27 '15 at 15:09
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    weasel words is similar. Incidentally cogsci.stackexchange.com might be worth looking at. – chasly - supports Monica Jul 27 '15 at 15:18
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    How about fauxtruism? – jxh Jul 27 '15 at 19:40
  • Whoever marked this as duplicate should reconsider, as the answers given for the "original" are significantly different. For example, I do not see ulterior — the top answer on the other post — as a given answer here. Sanctimonious, on the other hand, does not apply to the other post but is a great answer here. – Jake Regier Jul 28 '15 at 1:32
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    I see. In that case I think your link is quite inappropriate. The positivity or negativity of a precise term is morally neutral, in my opinion. Your link is quite explicit in claiming that I am mean. If you're depressed by such requests, maybe think of it this way: having precise terminology to name bad behavior is extremely useful because it allows self-defense without violence, and moreover gives the badly-behaving person opportunity to correct themselves, if they have the humility to admit the truth. It's not about putting people down. – Wapiti Jul 28 '15 at 22:23

14 Answers 14


I am not sure if you are stuck to the notion of altruism, but in the context of making a show of being nice to others to make themselves feel good, you could use sanctimonious.

Sanctimonious is a twist on the words sanctity and sacred, which mean holy or religious. A sanctimonious person might think he's holy, but their attitude comes across more like "holier-than-thou." Though sanctimonious people might try to act like saints, their actions are far from pure or holy, which just makes them sound like hypocrites.

  • I am accepting this answer with a caveat because, as pointed out by Jake Regier, it is an excellent answer here and not mentioned in the responses to the 'duplicate' question. The caveat is that this word does not describe the phenomenon I was really asking about, which was the general one. However, as several readers seemed to have mistaken the nature of my question (one reason this answer rose to the top), it is probably my fault for not posing the question better. – Wapiti Jul 28 '15 at 19:20

As defined by Merriam-Webster, egoism (or egotism) is "a doctrine that individual self-interest is the actual motive of all conscious action." A person who exhibits this egoism is an egoist (or egotist). These terms are discussed extensively in another Stack Exchange entry.

What you have described is egoism disguised as altruism--or, as both talmu and Doug Warren have mentioned, false altruism. Further examples of egoism or false altruism can be found on this Quora post. Some of them, taken from the answerer's own experiences, include

"donating to a charity to attend a benefit, peer tutoring in 10th grade chemistry because there were a lot of cute girls in the class, [and] giving away items when graduating college because I was too lazy to move them to the dumpster."

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    +1 for egoism (in particular, egotist, which you might want to mention more clearly as your answer). On the other hand, using altruistic on its own to describe someone who is falsely altruistic is at best extremely confusing, and in general simply incorrect. Whether true altruism exists or not is irrelevant here, the word means what it means. – talrnu Jul 27 '15 at 16:29
  • I think there are at least three possibilities: 1) Genuine altruists; 2) People who fa – jamesqf Jul 27 '15 at 17:18
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    I was going to answer with false altruism, but @talrnu sort of beat me to it in his previous comment. Though he mentions the term in passing, and thus doesn't seem to be explicitly putting that forward as a possible answer. – Doug Warren Jul 27 '15 at 17:25
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    -1 This answer pushes forwards the answerer's personal philosophy, which is off topic, more than it answers the question at hand. – Kevin Jul 27 '15 at 19:35
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    Aww, I liked that last paragraph: Altruism is a self-serving addiction; "merely veiled self-interest". The shortest phrase being, dopamine addiction, or normal. Unless your name is Mother Teresa, you practice pseudo-altruism. – Mazura Jul 27 '15 at 20:43

Hypocritical comes to mind.

The noun form of the adjective is

hypocrisy n
1. The practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess; falseness.


  • I don't think this fits here. The person praying might (and probably does) genuinely believe they're being helpful. Can you elaborate on what exactly makes this person a hypocrite? Or, more specifically, what about this situation is hypocritical? – talrnu Jul 27 '15 at 16:21
  • @talrnu: OP said the person said he was sorry but was actually glad. That is hypocrisy. – Robusto Jul 27 '15 at 16:28
  • The person praying isn't glad for the other person's suffering, but for the opportunity to be helpful, or to put the power of prayer to use, and (if the sufferer isn't a believer) share their faith in the process. True, they might be lying and actually not feel sorrow for the sufferer, but that's different from hypocrisy isn't it? – talrnu Jul 27 '15 at 16:42
  • @talrnu: Then how do you explain ". . . in a way that made it clear that he was glad I was having a hard time because it gave him the opportunity to pray for me and feel good about himself"? – Robusto Jul 27 '15 at 16:49
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    Fair point. I suppose my concern was over distrust of the asker's evaluation of the prayer-offerer's intentions. If the asker is truly correct, and this other person is literally glad for the asker's hardship, then yes, the person's a hypocrite. However, if there's any room for doubt, then I'd caution away from use of the word publicly (or at all, if you believe what goes around comes around), as it's a pretty harsh accusation to make of someone who might actually be concerned for you. – talrnu Jul 27 '15 at 17:49

I think you got as close to a phrase as I can think of in your original question.

'Self-serving altruism'

I think that works on its own as a phrase


Pretense of altruism?

A professed but feigned reason or excuse; a pretext.

source: thefreedictionary.com

NB: Spelt pretence in Britain.

According to the definition quoted above, it matches your requirements perfectly.

After I revealed my plight, he promised to pray for me and bowed his head with an affected pretense of altruism.

I realise that someone else has suggested pretentious, but that does not mean the same and is not suitable here in my opinion.


Rationalization is an established term for the “general (probably universal) phenomenon of human beings finding justification for things they want to do

rationalization noun: 1. the cognitive process of making something seem consistent with or based on reason; 2. (psychiatry) a defense mechanism by which your true motivation is concealed by explaining your actions and feelings in a way that is not threatening [and/or self-image enhancing]


  • This is very good, and definitely true. It is one half of the phenomenon I am describing, the other half being the hypocrisy. – Wapiti Jul 28 '15 at 19:12
  • OK, thanks, but wouldn't you agree that someone is being hypocritical in their justifications only when their justifications are intentionally, that is, consciously duplicitous or misleading? Rationalizations are often, maybe even predominantly, unconscious. Often one can't know the motivations of another. :-) – user98990 Jul 28 '15 at 19:23
  • I think hypocrisy is neutral regarding consciousness. My intuition leans in the opposite direction than yours. Most instances of hypocrisy I have seen arise out of unconscious conflicts. I think somebody can be hypocritical without realizing that they are hypocritical. This issue of consciousness is indeed critical to what I am describing. The other critical issue is the hypocrisy, which is the problem I have with your answer. Rationalization is only about concealing the truth, so I could rationalize behaviors which are very different than the ones I was trying to single out with my question. – Wapiti Jul 28 '15 at 22:00
  • Well, again, there is conscious rationalizing and there is unconscious rationalizing. The depth psychologists I've read (Freud, Jung, et al.) state that rationalizations are normal human behavior, being unconscious defense mechanisms which help us remain intact ego-wise. I would certainly agree that somebody can be hypocritical without realizing that they are hypocritical. In my experience with human beings, myself included, we are all hypocritical at times, sometime consciously, sometime ... not so much. :-) – user98990 Jul 28 '15 at 22:18
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    Yes, the best phrase I could think of in the end was rationalized hypocrisy. Not perfect, but not too bad. I like the idea of conscious rationalizing, it seems kind of self contradictory because to me rationalization always involves falsehood of some kind. Consciously reasoning to reach a fallacious conclusion that you wanted from the beginning is kind of like what happens in neo-platonic philosophy and bad science. – Wapiti Jul 28 '15 at 23:48

It sounds like martyr complex

In psychology a person who has a martyr complex, sometimes associated with the term victim complex, desires the feeling of being a martyr for his/her own sake, seeking out suffering or persecution because it either feeds a psychological need, or a desire to avoid responsibility.


This tends to focus on acts that are objectively burdensome to the person undertaking them. Simple false expressions of sympathy or nominal efforts probably wouldn't fit.


Duplicitous? Speaking or acting in two different ways. Disingenuous? lacking in sincerity, hypocritically sincere.


Pretentiously pious

pretentiously adverb: in a manner with unwarranted claim to importance or distinction.

pious adjective:
1. Having or exhibiting religious reverence; earnestly compliant in the observance of religion; devout.
2. Marked by false devoutness; solemnly hypocritical: a pious fraud.
Wiktionary and Wordnik/AHD

Pretentious is added to confirm the alternate meaning.

From The Sound of Music:

Sister Magaretta: The religious life is no place for the pious!

Mother Abbess: You mean the pretentiously pious, Sister Margaretta.

The real problem is that your friend will feel all the more sanctimonious if you call BS, no matter how articulately.

  • This is not an answer. – Jake Regier Jul 27 '15 at 16:01
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    I believe pretentiously pious is what user Guest is proposing as an appropriate answer for this OP, I have edited to make that more readily apparent. And, welcome to EL&U, Guest. – user98990 Jul 27 '15 at 16:09

Disingenuous – not truly honest or sincere : giving the false appearance of being honest or sincere.

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    Welcome to EL&U, Jean Murray. When you get a moment, why not take the TOUR and pay a visit to the HELP Center. There’s a lot to learn about this site, such as how to ask good questions and provide good answers, all about rep points and the privileges they confer. It’s well worth looking around. Anyway, enjoy yourself, and we’ll see you around. :-) – user98990 Jul 27 '15 at 17:11
  • Yes, this is one of the ones I considered, along with insincere and dissembling etc., but all of these adjectives share the flaw that they are too general. They do not specify the type of lie being told. – Wapiti Jul 28 '15 at 1:59

Self-righteous or patronizing.

Self-righteous (?), a. Righteous in one's own esteem; pharisaic.

[1913 Webster]


  1. To assume the air of a patron, or of a superior and protector, toward; -- used in an unfavorable sense; as, “to patronize one's equals”.

[1913 Webster]

  • I actually like patronizing, it is getting kind of close, but only because of the nature of my example. It's not appropriate for the general case. You could imagine somebody who was taking out the garbage for his neighbors supposedly as such a nice favor, and even tells himself this, but in fact gets sick erotic pleasure out of other seeing people's garbage. That's another example of the thing I'm trying to name, but not really patronizing. – Wapiti Jul 28 '15 at 2:04

I suggest "unconscious fallaciousness"

  • "fallacious" (adj) - tending to deceive or mislead : delusive MW

First, I don't think your example is a good instance of the behavior, since it doesn't require the pray-er to actually do anything. Even if you admit that prayers are effective, it's the deity being prayed to that's doing the work.

There also seems to be more than a bit of schadenfreude (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schadenfreude ) in the attitude, as he's deriving pleasure from your misfortune.

For the larger question, I think a reasonable term might be "enlightened self-interest". For instance, I do favors for my neighbors, not because I'm altruistic, nor because I expect a immediate favor in return, but in order to create an atmosphere of long-term good feelings which would make them willing to do me unspecified favors at some future date.

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    How is the asker's example not a good instance of the behavior? The asker is literally asking for a description of the behavior found in the example. It's the definitive instance of the behavior being asked about. – talrnu Jul 27 '15 at 17:54
  • @talrnu: It's not good because it is at odds with the title, and with the descriptions given in the following paragraphs. The pray-er in the example is not actually doing anything to even appear altruistic. – jamesqf Jul 28 '15 at 0:12
  • It does require the prayer to do something: pray. Even if the deity is doing the work, presumably without the original work of praying the miracle or whatever would not occur. Also, the larger question was about people who justify selfish behavior by lying to themselves and disguising their actions as something of service to others. I don't see what is enlightened about that. – Wapiti Jul 28 '15 at 1:42

They are deluded; in particular they are suffering from self-delusion:

The act of deluding oneself, or the state of being so deluded.

This state was probably brought about by rationalization, as described in the other answer.

  • How about rationalized delusions of magnanimity. – jxh Jul 29 '15 at 20:52

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