A double standard is a principle or policy that is applied in a different manner to similar things, without proper justification. Essentially, this means that a double standard occurs when two or more things, such as individuals or groups, are treated differently, when they should be treated the same way.
For example, a double standard can involve treating two similar employees differently after they do the same thing, by punishing one and rewarding the other, even though there is no valid reason to do so.
Because double standards can have serious consequences, it’s important to understand them. As such, in the following article you will learn more about double standards, and see what you can do in order to respond to their use, as well as what you can do to avoid using them yourself.
Examples of double standards
One example of a double standard is a teacher who treats two similar students differently for no good reason, by grading one of them much more harshly, simply because they personally dislike that student.
Another example of a double standard is a person who criticizes others for doing something, even though this person does the same thing regularly and doesn’t see an issue with what they do when they’re the ones doing it.
A famous literary example of double standards appears in George Orwell’s 1945 novel “Animal Farm“, in which a group of animals decides to take over the farm where they live, so they can rule themselves instead of having humans rule over them. One of the core rules that the animals decide to follow is that “all animals are equal”. However, as time passes, the pigs gather power over the other animals, and give themselves preferential treatment in a variety of ways. Eventually, this culminates in the pigs revoking all the rules that the animals initially agreed on, in place of a single rule, which exemplifies the concept of double standards: “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.
Another famous example of double standards appears in the Latin phrase “quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi” which can be translated as ‘‘what is permissible for Jove (who is also known as ‘Jupiter’, and who is the king of the gods in Roman mythology), is not permitted to cattle”. This concept has been described as being a double standard that is antithetical to the rule of law:
“[This phrase] has always seemed to me to symbolize the opposite of what I consider to be the rule of law. And the rule of law is what I perceive and consider judging to be about—at least it is why I went into judging rather than into some of the previous endeavors that Roger’s introduction of me laid out at some length. The rule of law means that, to the extent that fallible judges are capable of adhering to it, the expectation is that when you go before a court, the outcome depends on the merits of your case, not your political status, relation to the court, or other personal characteristics. It does not mean that the law is a mechanical enterprise—it cannot be. But it should mean that the judge will apply the same standards to the merits of your case, as to those of any other case, whatever the color of your skin or the content of your character.”
— From “Challenges to the Rule of Law: Or, Quod Licet Jovi Non Licet Bovi”, by Danny J. Boggs, Chief Judge in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (2006)
Finally, additional examples of double standards appear in various other domains of life, in the actions of individuals and groups that practice various forms of favoritism and discrimination, such as sexism or racism. This involves judging or treating people differently based on certain traits, such as gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, age, social class, or socioeconomic status.
Note: when double standards are applied with regard to a particular trait, this is sometimes reflected in the way the double standards are referred to. This includes, for example, racial double standards, where people from different races are judged or treated differently, as well as gender-based double standards, where people of different genders are judged or treated differently, particularly when it comes to sexual behavior and relationships, a phenomenon that is also referred to as sexual double standards.
Who applies double standards
Double standards can be applied by individuals or groups, generally toward other individuals or groups. Examples of what double standards can look like in any of these situations include the following:
- An individual applying double standards toward individuals can involve, for example, a parent applying double standards toward their children, by treating similar behavior in an entirely different manner, based on which kid did it.
- An individual applying double standards toward groups can involve, for example, a manager applying double standards toward employees, by discriminating during the hiring process based on factors such as gender or race.
- A group applying double standards toward individuals can involve, for example, a media company applying double standards toward an activist, by attacking them for behavior that they praised in a different activist earlier on.
- A group applying double standards toward groups can involve, for example, a government applying double standards towards politicians as a whole, by being overly lenient toward them when it comes to criminal prosecution, compared to the treatment of regular citizens.
Note that when double standards are applied against a group, this can often take the form of double standards being applied against specific members of that group. Furthermore, when a group applies double standards toward others, it can either be because the group as a whole applies those double standards, or because key members of that group apply double standards on behalf of the group.
In addition, note that double standards can also be applied toward things other than individuals or groups. For example, someone might apply double standards when it comes to hobbies, by mocking a hobby for involving behaviors that this person thinks are fine when they’re a part of other hobbies. Similarly, someone might praise the attributes of a product made by a company that they like, even though this person criticizes those attributes when they appear in products made by competing companies.
Why people use double standards
People use double standards both intentionally and unintentionally, for various reasons.
Intentional use of double standards involves a conscious and active decision to apply them, and occurs primarily when people feel that the double standards in question could help them achieve some goal. This goal can involve things such as helping someone that they favor, hurting someone that they dislike, or making their arguments sound more persuasive.
Unintentional use of double standards doesn’t involve an active and conscious decision to apply them, though this doesn’t necessarily affect the outcome that using the double standard leads to. This unintentional use involves a failure to notice the double standard, and is generally driven by some motivation, often emotional in nature.
Accordingly, cognitive biases, which are systematic patterns of deviations from rationality, that occur due to the way our cognitive system works, often play a role when it comes to the unintentional use of double standards. A notable example of this is the confirmation bias, which is a cognitive bias that causes people to search for, favor, interpret, and recall information in a way that confirms their preexisting beliefs. This bias can lead people to apply double standards in many situations, such as by causing a person to judge the identical behavior of two individuals in a different manner, in order to confirm some preexisting impression of them.
When it comes to emotional motivators, there are many reasons why people apply double standards unintentionally. For example, people often apply double standards when it comes to how they judge their own behavior compared to the behavior of others, because they want to feel better about their actions. This means, for instance, that when it comes to judging some highly negative action, people might judge the action less harshly if they themself performed it, compared to if someone else had performed it, partly because they don’t want to feel bad about what they did.
Finally, note that cognitive biases and emotional motivations can also play a role when it comes to the intentional use of double standards. For example, someone experiencing the confirmation bias might be driven by the desire to prove that they were right in their assessment of a person, which could lead them to actively apply double standards, in a way that helps them do so.
Overall, people use double standards both intentionally and unintentionally. Intentional use of double standards is generally driven by the desire to achieve a certain outcome, while unintentional use of double standards is generally driven by emotional motivators, and often involves a failure to notice the double standards or understand that they’re problematic. However, both intentional and unintentional use of double standards can be emotional in nature, and both can lead to similar outcomes in practice.
Dealing with double standards
How to identify double standards
To determine whether something that you’ve encountered is a double standard or not, there are two main things that you should consider:
- Are two (or more) things being treated differently?
- If there is a different treatment, is there a valid reason for it?
A double standard occurs when there is unequal treatment that’s not properly justified. This is important, because it means that unequal treatment of two or more things isn’t always a double standard, and can sometimes be reasonable.
For example, expecting better behavior from an adult than from a child is generally not a double standard, because the two types of individuals are different in a way that justifies the different expectations. Similarly, it can be reasonable to hold the actions of an elected official to a higher standard than those of a member of the public, because of the responsibility and power that they have.
As such, to make sure that some unequal treatment represents a double standard, ask yourself whether there is proper justification for this treatment. If necessary, you can also ask this of the person who is applying the unequal treatment, or of someone else who is relevant to the situation.
When doing this, it’s important to watch out for false equivalences, which occur when someone incorrectly asserts that two or more things are equivalent, simply because they share some characteristics, despite the fact that there are also notable differences between them. This is because false equivalences can cause you to mistakenly believe that a double standard is being applied, in situations where the things receiving unequal treatment are different in a way that merits this treatment.
When in doubt, apply the principle of charity, and don’t assume that a double standard is being used if there is a plausible alternative explanation, as long as it’s reasonable to do so. Furthermore, as long as it’s reasonable to do so, you should apply Hanlon’s razor, and operate under the assumption that the person using the double standard is doing so unintentionally.
How to respond to double standards
When responding to the use of double standards, the first step is to make sure that what you’re seeing is indeed a double standard, using the approach outlined in the previous section.
Then, the second step is often to ask the person who you believe is applying a double standard to explain their reasoning, if you haven’t already, and if doing so is reasonable in your circumstances.
This not only helps you determine whether they’re truly applying a double standard, but also gives you a better idea as to why they’re doing what they’re doing. Furthermore, in cases where the use of double standards is unintentional, this can give you the added advantage of possibly helping the person using the double standards realize that they’re doing so, particularly if you ask them to explain the rationale behind treating similar things in a different manner. In addition, in cases where the use of double standards is intentional, this can help you highlight the issues with that person’s reasoning.
Once you do this, you can then actively point out the logical and moral issues with the double standard, by showing that there is no proper justification for the unequal treatment in question. When doing this, you generally also want to help the person applying the double standard internalize the issue with what they’re doing, and negate their motivation for applying the double standard in the first place.
To achieve this, you will often need relevant debiasing techniques, and particularly when the double standards in question are the result of an underlying cognitive bias. For example, one bias that often plays a role when it comes to double standards is the empathy gap, which is a cognitive bias that makes it difficult for people to account for the manner in which differences in mental states affect the way that they and other people make decisions. If you see someone applying double standards as a result of this bias, you can ask them to think of situations where they experienced a similar double standard being applied toward them. Similarly, you can ask them to consider how they would feel someone applied a similar double standard toward them, or toward someone that they care about.
Finally, note that in some cases, you might be unable to get someone to stop applying a double standard, no matter what you do. If this happens, your response should depend on the circumstance at hand. For example, if the person in question is someone that you barely know or care about, you might choose to simply stop interacting with them, and let them know why. Conversely, if the person in question is your superior at work, you might choose to go to your company’s Human Resources department, in order to get them to resolve the issue.
Overall, when responding to the use of double standards, you should first ensure that you’re indeed dealing with a double standard, preferably by asking the person applying the standard to explain their reasoning. Then, you should point out the logical and moral issues with the double standard in question, help the person applying the standard internalize those issues, and negate their motivation for applying the standard in the first place. If none of these solutions work, you should pick an alternative one based on the circumstance, such as escalating the issue to someone who can resolve it, or cutting ties with the person who’s applying the double standard.
How to avoid applying double standards yourself
To avoid applying double standards yourself, you should make sure that whenever you treat two or more similar things differently, you have proper justification for doing so.
Though this might sound simple, it can often be difficult to do, especially in situations where you’re applying the double standards toward only one thing at a time. For example, this can involve treating someone harshly for making a mistake simply because you dislike them, in a situation where you haven’t seen anyone else make a similar mistake recently, which can make it difficult for you to notice that your response is too harsh.
As such, to avoid using double standards, whenever you find yourself thinking, speaking, or acting in an especially favorable or harsh manner toward someone or something, you should ask yourself to justify your reasoning, and consider whether you’ve treated similar things in a different manner under similar circumstances. The more significant the outcomes of your thoughts, statements, or actions, in terms of factors such as the impact they will have on others, the more important it is to do this.
If you find yourself applying a double standard, you can generally use the same techniques to resolve it as you would when dealing with someone else’s use of double standards. Most notably, this involves internalizing the logical and moral issues with your reasoning, and using various debiasing techniques to help mitigate the emotional drives and reasoning errors that cause you to apply double standards in the first place.
Note that you should be especially wary of applying double standards toward yourself compared to others. This is a common phenomenon that takes many forms, and occurs when you treat yourself more favorably or more harshly than you treat others, for no good reason.
When it comes to avoiding this issue, you should make sure to watch out for the egocentric bias, which is a cognitive bias that causes people to rely too heavily on their own point of view when they examine events in their life or when they try to see things from other people’s perspective. To deal with it, you can use appropriate debiasing techniques, such as considering how events that you’re in are perceived by other people, rather than just yourself, and trying to view those events from an external perspective.
Hypocrisy involves thinking, speaking, or acting in a way that contradicts one’s other thoughts, statements, or actions, especially when the individual in question is claiming to be superior in some way, such as morally.
Hypocrisy often involves the use of double standards. For example, a hypocrite might attack someone for acting a certain way, even though the hypocrite acted the same way when they were in a similar situation.
Hypocrisy is generally viewed negatively, though the issues associated with it can sometimes be mitigated if the hypocrite openly acknowledges their hypocrisy, and provides proper justification for it.
The etymology and history of the term ‘double standard’
The term ‘double standard’ was initially used to refer to the concept of bimetallism, which is the use of two metals (usually gold and silver) as monetary units, at a fixed ratio to each other. The term appears in writing in this sense as early as 1764, in the “Ames Library Pamphlet Collection” (Volume 16, Issues 1-9), which is a “collection of monographs related to Indian history and civilization, as well as the British experience in India, from the 18th through the 20th centuries”.
Later, people began using the term in other senses. For example, an 1834 article contains the following excerpt:
“The chief objection, however, to the use of oaths is, that it establishes a double standard of veracity: it recognizes the principle that it is possible by some human contrivance to increase the obligation to tell the truth; a principle in our opinion utterly false, and fraught with the most pernicious consequences.”
— In an 1834 review of James Endell Tyler’s “Origin, Nature and History of Oaths”, written in The Law Magazine (Volume 13)
The use of the term in the moral sense, which is closer to how it’s used today, appeared at a later stage, with the earliest known instance of it in writing appearing in an 1872 article:
“Mrs. Butler traced the present inequality in the requirements of society with regard to male and female morality to the natural tendency of the stronger to obtain the victory of the weaker… This tendency has led men to impose a strict rule of continence and fidelity upon women, while it allowed license to their own sex… The Christian religion sets up an equal standard of morality for both sexes; it proclaims an absolute rule of personal purity on all alike, and as if to correct, with scourging, the falsehood of the existing double standard, Christ threw the whole weight of His authority into His rebukes of male profligacy, while with infinite tenderness, He restored the slave of man’s lust to her place among the free.”
— From an 1872 article titled “Unjust Judgments on Subjects of Morality”, written in The Ecclesiastical Observer (Volume 25), in response to a related lecture by Mrs. Josephine Butler
Similar uses of the term appeared in writing later, in a number of places, such as the following:
“The double standard of morality owes its continued existence very greatly to the want of a common sentiment concerning morality on the part of men and women, especially in the more refined classes of society.”
— From an 1886 article titled “The Double Standard of Morality”, in the “Friends’ Intelligencer United with the Friends’ Journal” (Volume 43)
The term remained in consistent use since then, often in the context of gender-based double standards, where men and women were suggested to be held to different standards of morality. For example, one book famously described this issue by saying that:
“What was right for Jack was wrong for Jill.”
— From the 1928 book “The Warrior, the Woman, and the Christ: A Study of the Leadership of Christ” by Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy
Note: the term ‘double standard’ has also been used in a number of niche technical senses, with the earliest known usage appearing in 1751.
Summary and conclusions
- A double standard is a principle or policy that is applied in a different manner to similar things, without proper justification.
- For example, a double standard can involve treating two similar employees differently after they do the same thing, by punishing one and rewarding the other, even though there is no valid reason to do so.
- Intentional use of double standards is generally driven by the desire to achieve a certain outcome, while unintentional use of double standards is generally driven by emotional motivators, and often involves a failure to notice the double standards or understand that they’re problematic.
- To determine whether something constitutes a double standard, you should determine whether there is unequal treatment involved, and whether there is proper justification for such treatment.
- To deal with the use of double standards, you can use various techniques, such as asking the person applying the double standards to explain the rationale behind their behavior, or asking them how they would feel if someone else applied similar double standards toward them.