What Strengthens and Weakens Our Integrity – Part II: Closing the Gap Between Our Actions and Their Consequences

by Brett & Kate McKay on August 7, 2013 · 32 comments

in A Man's Life, On Virtue


In the first post of this four-part series on what weakens our integrity and how we can strengthen it, we discussed how our decisions to act in dishonest ways are influenced by two factors: 1) wanting to get a reward – often financial/material, but also things like pleasure or fame, and 2) wanting to be able to continue to see ourselves as good people. As psychology professor Dan Ariely puts it: “Essentially, we cheat up to the level that allows us to retain our self-image as reasonably honest individuals.”

How we decide to balance these conflicting motivations comes down to our willingness to rationalize our unethical and selfish behavior as really not so bad. The more you’re able to justify your immoral actions, the grayer the line between what you deem right and wrong gets, and the wider your “fudge factor” margin – how much immoral behavior you can commit without feeling guilty – becomes.

Last time, we talked about how taking just a small first step down a dishonest path can set off a cycle of rationalization and further dishonest behavior, which can lead you away from your principles and into more serious misdeeds. But what factors come into play when you do take that first step? Further, what keeps you going down that shady path once you do?

Today we will explore one of the most salient factors that increase our ability to rationalize a dishonest act, and how we can combat this force in order to maintain our integrity.

The Distance Between the Deed and the Consequence

One of these significant influences is the psychological distance between the act and its consequences. The more steps removed we are from how an immoral decision affects others and from having to think about the reality of what we’re doing, the easier it is to make the choice without feeling bad about it.

Ariely conducted several experiments that vividly illustrate this principle at work.

First he conducted a non-scientific experiment in several dormitories on a college campus. In the communal refrigerators of some of the dorms, he placed a six-pack of Coke. In other dorm fridges, he left a plate with six $1 bills on it. The Cokes and dollars were nearly equivalent in value, yet within 72 hours, all of the sodas had disappeared but none of the dollar bills had been touched. The students could have easily grabbed a buck and then used it to get a Coke at a nearby machine. But they didn’t. Why? Because taking a dollar – money in its raw form – feels like stealing, while taking a Coke – a step removed from the money – feels more okay. Ariely compares this to the way many people wouldn’t think twice about taking a ream of paper from work, but wouldn’t dream of grabbing $3.50 from the office’s petty cash box.

After this casual experiment, Ariely wanted to see if the same thing would happen in a more controlled environment. So he returned to the matrix test we discussed last time. If you remember, that test asked participants to solve as many mathematical matrices as possible in five minutes and paid them per correct answer. In the condition that allowed for cheating, the participants checked their own answers, shredded their worksheets at the back of the room, and then told the experimenter how many answers they had gotten correct in order to collect the promised cash payout (since the experimenter had not checked the worksheet themselves, the participant could claim to have solved as many matrices as they wanted). This time around, Ariely mixed things up by having the experimenter first give the participants plastic tokens instead of money, which they then redeemed for cash in the next room over. What happened when this small step was placed between the opportunity to lie and getting the money directly? Participants cheated by twice as much.

In another study, Ariely polled hundreds of golfers and had them imagine a situation where moving the ball (which is against the rules of the game) would offer an advantage. He asked them to predict how often the average golfer would move the ball by either 1) tapping it with his club, 2) kicking it with his foot, or 3) picking it up with his hand. The survey respondents thought the average golfer would use his club more than twice as often as his hand (with the foot falling in the middle). Even though the manner in which the ball is moved has no bearing on whether or not it constitutes cheating, tapping it with your club feels less dishonest, because you’re not making direct contact with it – you’re separated from what you’re really doing. It’s easier for the golfer to tell himself that it just kind of inadvertently happened, allowing him to chalk the act up as no big deal and keep on feeling like an honest guy. In contrast, Ariely writes, if the golfer were to grab the ball directly with his hand, there would be “no way to ignore the purposefulness and intentionality of the act.”

How to Counteract the Distance and Strengthen Your Integrity

The greater the psychological distance between our dishonest actions and their consequences, the easier those actions become to rationalize as morally and ethically acceptable. And the more our ability to rationalize increases, the more our fudge factor margin widens. Thus in order to strengthen and preserve our integrity, it’s important to remove the steps – if only in our minds – between our actions and the reality of what we’re doing and how it affects others.

This can be a tricky problem, because we’re counteracting a psychological issue. We first have to influence our mind to see the importance of what is going on. If we don’t mentally frame our disingenuous deeds as being in the wrong in the first place, we cannot work to remove them from our lives. Instead of letting ourselves ignore the problem (don’t let the left hand know what the right is doing!) we must work to consciously create more awareness of the consequences of our behavior.

Cultivating this awareness really comes down to cognitively stripping away the layers between something and its value or effect on other people. So for example, if you’re about to take some printer ink from work, imagine yourself instead taking $30 from your boss’ desk drawer. If you can’t see yourself pilfering the cash, realize that swiping the ink is really no different.

Here’s another example: say you get paid $15 an hour to do your job, but you spend an hour at work goofing off. You’ve essentially stolen $15 from your employer. Of course surfing the web doesn’t feel anything like stealing, but it’s really no different than pocketing a $15 item while shopping and not paying for it.

Another effective element to add to this kind of mental exercise is to imagine the person your action would most affect (or perhaps a loved one or someone who looks up to you) standing by you as you did it. Would you still take the ink or sneak in a nap if your boss was right there beside you? The need to hide something is a sure sign of its questionable morality. As it is often said, integrity is what you will do when no one is watching.

Of course, tracing your actions back to who they would most affect can be difficult if you’re working for a giant, faceless corporation. In such cases, dishonesty and rationalization become infinitely easier, because the gap between your actions and any consequences can seem wide and the effect of them small. Yet the essence of integrity is that an action is wrong regardless of its magnitude – stealing ten dollars from a rich man isn’t more okay than stealing ten dollars from a poor man. It doesn’t matter that the former wouldn’t “feel” it like the latter. Stealing is stealing.

It can also be much easier to make excuses for your dishonest behavior if you don’t like your job or the person that you’re dealing with. In another experiment Ariely conducted, people were overpaid $4 by either a neutral experimenter (the control condition) or one who was rude to them while giving the payout. In the control condition, 45% of people gave back the extra change (pretty sobering that more than half of people kept it). But only 14% of those who dealt with the rude experimenter gave the money back. For them, keeping the extra change could be justified as comeuppance for the experimenter’s behavior – they rationalized that he didn’t deserve the money back and/or it compensated them for being treated badly. You can see this kind of thinking acted out by someone who steals from work because they don’t feel they are paid enough. Or perhaps your ex-girlfriend has been a complete jerk to you during a break-up, so when she asks if a favorite necklace is still at your place, you lie and say you haven’t seen it. Or maybe you cheat on your wife because you feel she’s overly frigid and doesn’t have sex with you enough. It’s easy to justify a dishonest act when you feel owed something or when you feel you’ve been wronged. You can rationalize that you’re just balancing out the scale, but do two wrongs make a right?

One realm where we must be especially vigilant about increasing our awareness of our actions is online. Cyberspace can make everything we do feel truly nebulous and abstract. Communicating with friends, and even more so with anonymous strangers puts a whole lot of distance between our behavior and its real effects; we often forget there’s an actual human being sitting behind the screen you’re typing to. So here again it helps to imagine doing what you’re doing online in a more direct way. Would your ability to justify your online behavior evaporate if you did the same thing in the real world? Flirting with someone other than your wife might feel okay when you’re chatting via instant message…but how does it feel to imagine saying the same things to a stranger at a bar? What if your wife was standing right there? Hurling vitriol and scathing insults at someone on an internet forum might feel harmless, but can you imagine saying the same things to the person’s face? Saying things online that you would never say in-person constitutes a failure of the wholeness and consistency required of a man of integrity.


We must always remember that we’re all experts in creating rationalizations for dishonest behavior when that behavior serves our own interests. And the greater the distance there is between an immoral act and its consequences, the easier these rationalizations become to generate. We’re so adept at cloaking our dishonest deeds in the disguise of acceptability that we may not even recognize them for what they are ourselves, and will sometimes fight tooth and nail to defend our justifications.

Thus living with integrity requires frank and sincere self-examination and self-awareness. What are your true motivations and intentions? What are the consequences of your actions and whom will they affect? Strengthening your mental game and building this kind of awareness isn’t easy. It involves tuning into that little nagging voice in your mind that says, “Hold on a minute, this isn’t quite right.” Instead of ignoring it, write down what that voice says in a pocket notebook. Maybe seeing it in words makes it more real and shortens that distance between action and consequence. Or consider partnering up with a friend or significant other who you can send a text to when you feel that twinge of guilt coming on about something. To voice it to another person certainly makes it more real.

Winning the mental battle is the first step in being a man with great integrity. You haven’t won yet, and probably never will completely, but you make progress by not letting the smallest misdeed be rationalized away.

“The thought manifests the word;
The word manifests the deed;
The deed develops into habit;
And habit hardens into character;
So watch the thought and its ways with care.”

-Juan Mascaro

Do you have any mind hacks you use to shorten that psychological distance when there are layers between actions and consequences?



The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone–Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

1 GLR August 7, 2013 at 7:05 pm

When on the fence about something, I try to imagine three scenarios:
*A close friend tells me someone he knows did the morally questionable behaviour. What would I think of this person?
*A close friend tells me they are considering or already acted on that. What would I think of him?
*I overhear someone recounting me engaging in that behaviour. How would I feel?

Usually the first question is enough to decide that the person I want to be(come) is better than “this”, whether that means keeping extra change or not working hard for my money

2 Greg August 7, 2013 at 7:07 pm

I personally find it to be a good idea to ignore consequences, as it concerns integrity. To me, consequences have little to do with it. The consequences of most real-life decisions are too hard to understand unless they’re direct, so the best idea seems to be to act with integrity according to sound principles, letting the consequences fall as they may.

Government is a great example of what I mean. We see a lot of policies designed to fix certain problems, but it’s not easy to say what will or won’t fix a problem. The stimulus spending doesn’t seem to have created the jobs we expected, for example. The thing is that one can’t guarantee the consequences of much, but one can act according to sound principles instead. I would rather have leaders who felt that the priority in the recession was to act according to principles of sound finance, like ensuring positive cash flow, instead of trying to ‘fix the jobs situation.’

If things have unintended consequences despite right actions, that’s not for any person to concern themselves over. We don’t control what happens, we only can control what we do. I don’t think this undermines the article’s point at all, though, because acting with integrity should be a principle we base our actions on.

3 Kieren Underwood August 7, 2013 at 7:46 pm

I feel this series of articles will be one of the best on this site if the next two live up to the following. Extremely helpful thankyou.

4 Alonso V. August 7, 2013 at 9:42 pm

Great article! Definitely makes me think of how I have acted in the past. Even the smallest things. If I ignore the small things and don’t act with integrity, I can’t really complain about corrupt politicians and such. The change starts with yourself.

5 James Kay August 8, 2013 at 3:51 am

Hello there. This is my first post on this site. I am slowly coming out of a dormant period in my life, a period where I have been lazy and let life pass me by. I just wanted to express my gratitude to the author, these articles are invigorating and revitalising, they are helping me to rebuild my self-respect and my appreciation of life and those within it, so thank you. James

6 Darren August 8, 2013 at 5:23 am

Brilliant. I feel many people (myself included) need to look at their music libraries…and how much of it they bought vs. how much came from burning a a CD from a friend. Artists deserve to be paid. It’s easy to say that the Rolling Stones have made enough already….but it’s still stealing from them.

7 Vuk August 8, 2013 at 7:38 am

How I would love to hear some advice on what to do when you strayed far away from the path of integrity…

8 Agustín August 8, 2013 at 8:16 am

Amazing series of articles. Really looking forward to part III. Thanks a lot!

9 Dann Anthony August 8, 2013 at 8:40 am

These articles are fabulous.

“God is Watching” used to be all the deterrent most people needed, but that deterrent has lost its power.

I welcome a sobering, realistic view of what the true costs of “little compromises” are.

Stephen Covey once said “You can’t talk your way out of something you behaved yourself into.” Worth remembering.

10 SS August 8, 2013 at 11:25 am

With reference to the $15 an hour example, what if the $15 an hour rate has already been calculated by factoring in the possibility of goofing off? I’m not justifying wasting time, I’m just saying that employers probably are aware of the possibility and make rates accordingly.

11 Todd August 8, 2013 at 11:37 am

That’s fascinating he did the coke vs $1 experiment. Years ago I did one similar–the UMBRELLAS in my office were consistently being stolen. Oh, it would irritate me so much!

So I decided to leave a $5 bill out. My umbrellas kept moving to oblivion but no one took the $5.

12 Randy Stone August 8, 2013 at 12:35 pm

I sent this link to my kids. Says it much better than I ever could.

13 Marc L August 8, 2013 at 1:49 pm

I’ve always felt that this all starts with objectivity, removing your emotions and feelings from a situation, no matter how involved you are, almost viewing a situation that you are involved in as if you were merely an observer.

14 David Tindell August 8, 2013 at 2:11 pm

When this series is done, everyone should print it out and mail it to the White House and their representatives in Congress.

15 Doug August 8, 2013 at 10:44 pm

I feel like if you were to constantly try and pretend that someone was watching over you, you would quickly just ignore and it wouldn’t be effective. I did like comparing the printer ink to $15 trick though. I’ll definitely have to use that one in the future…

A quote given to me by a Company Officer…:

“First you find yourself overlooking small infractions that you would have corrected on the spot in the past.

Soon, you are a participant in these infractions. “After all”, you say, “Everybody’s doing it”.

All too soon you find yourself trapped: You no longer can stand on a favorite principle because you have strayed from it.

Finding no way out, you begin to rationalize, and then you are hooked.

The important fact is, the men who travel the path outlined above the very basic quality and characteristic expected of a professional military man, or any other professional man for that matter:

They have compromised their integrity.”

16 Jerry August 8, 2013 at 11:45 pm

These articles are great stuff, and deal with an issue that we don’t talk about nearly enough.

For what it’s worth, something that I have found to really simplify ethical issues is one short phrase: “Bell, Book, and Candle”

BELL: If a little bell goes off in your head when you’re thinking about doing something, that’s probably a fair warning.

BOOK: Is it illegal?

CANDLE: How would you feel if your actions were exposed to the light of publicity? Would you be embarrassed if what you did made the paper?

17 Ted Vailas August 9, 2013 at 7:03 am

Really interesting post. Thanks for sharing.

My favorite part was how “taking just a small first step down a dishonest path can set off a cycle of rationalization and further dishonest behavior, which can lead you away from your principles and into more serious misdeeds.” It’s a bit scary to think about, but it really emphasizes the importance of trying to recognize temptations early and keep yourself disciplined depending on what it is.

Thanks again!

18 Kevin August 9, 2013 at 7:27 pm

Picture someone you love and respect standing beside you. Then ask yourseIf, would you do it?

For me, it’s my wife. So I ask myself if she was beside me, would I do it? This can apply to a plethora of life situations.

19 Satish Kandukuri August 10, 2013 at 6:34 am

Ironically, am reading this piece of article about integrity from my work computer, where am supposed to be working and what am paid for :|

20 Anders August 10, 2013 at 9:03 am

How about this one?
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”

Regardles of your beliefs, or lack of them, ask yourself “Would I like it if someone did this to me?”

I think this method has some merit.

21 Mauricio August 11, 2013 at 9:29 pm

I love these blogs, I can’t wait to part 3!

22 Richard August 12, 2013 at 6:24 pm

@ Vuk

I’ve been down the road where integrity was slipping away, the fastest (and the way I personally feel is best) way to get back on track is to literally, get back on track. Stop every hint of immorality in it’s tracks and do everything like you live in a glass house.

23 josh August 12, 2013 at 7:00 pm

I try to imagine what advise I would offer to a friend facing the same moral decision and then try to “follow my own advise”.

24 Harry August 12, 2013 at 9:06 pm

One take-away from this: if somebody is stealing your food at work, staple a $5 bill to it!

25 Anna-Marie Houtrouw August 12, 2013 at 10:18 pm

Thank you so much for these articles on integrity. They made me take a 2nd look at things I do in the work place, such as simply chatting at the desk when things are slow, instead of looking for things that need to be done, because I’m still on the clock.

Keep up the great work.

26 Mike August 13, 2013 at 7:26 am

In the arena of lust, I found it practical to say to myself, “she is someone’s daughter, wife, or mother. She’s a person, not a museum piece.”

Vuk: my advice would be to go see a Christian pastor who knows how to hear confession and tell you the truth of God’s mercy in Christ.

27 Chuck August 15, 2013 at 12:19 pm

This article brought up a thought that I have about my own job. Well more or less a scenario that I can give:

I work as a producer and video editor at a large, well known company and I average 60 hours a week. I have one other co-worker who is basically a copy of me, along with two other interns, in our department. My problem every day is this:

I work from about 9 am – 7 pm or 8 pm every night and I’m always the first to leave. No matter how late I stay, my co-worker is always staying later than me, even after we’ve completed the days work.

For some reason, this makes me feel extremely guilty, even though if I stayed, I’d pretty much be sitting there wasting time. Does anyone else ever find themselves in this particular situation and if so, what advice would you have for alleviating this mindset I’ve developed?


28 Zach August 16, 2013 at 4:10 pm

I’ve definitely strayed from integrity, and I can even still hear some of the excuses I’ve used in the past.

One problem that I need to work through as I work for integrity is a shifting sense of guilt, somewhat like Chuck up above me. I’ve grown up as a “nice guy” and a “mama’s boy,” and I feel guilty standing up for myself.

I think, though, that recognition of all of that is good news. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

29 Haleem ul Hassan August 18, 2013 at 6:58 am

This is one of the best damn articles I have ever read. Kudos to you my man for writing it with such clarity! May we all learn from it!

30 James Robinson August 21, 2013 at 12:06 pm

Sometimes imagining the consequences can be helpful in closing the distance between actions and consequences. I use a “fast forward” technique. I fast forward my thoughts through the sequence of actions straight to the potential worst case scenario consequences, and it is clear to see which side of morality a potential action resides on. This works especially well when I find my thoughts wandering towards another woman besides my wife.

31 Obadyah November 5, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Thanks for posting this article. I’ll read the next two shortly but I wanted to comment and show my gratitude. I, too, know how it is to let one’s integrity slip. I am, unfortunately, guilty of this in many ways. I often crack under pressure of just living. I grew up without my father and so even at the ripe age of 30 I am still struggling to embrace manhood and act accordingly.

32 Emilio December 27, 2013 at 12:21 pm

Outstanding series! Thank you very much.

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