What Strengthens and Weakens Our Integrity – Part IV: The Power of Moral Reminders

by Brett & Kate McKay on August 19, 2013 · 26 comments

in A Man's Life, On Virtue


In the first post in this series we discussed the concept of the “Pyramid of Choice,” and the way in which taking an initial dishonest step can potentially set a person on a path of increasingly serious misdeeds that eventually carries them far away from their original principles.

Yet one or even several bad choices do not cause most of us to slide all the way down into the gutter of utter corruption and depravity. Instead, we often make a few bad choices and then decide to right the ship and get back on track again.

What checks our behavior and prompts us to stop the slide? What determines how far we journey down the path of dishonesty before we decide to turn around?

Part of it is our desire to strike the balance we have talked about previously between wanting to benefit from a dishonest act and wanting to still be able to see ourselves as good people. Committing too many misdeeds can begin to compromise our positive self-image and prick our conscience, prompting us to beat a trail back to a place where we don’t feel like such a shyster.

Yet people seem to reach this tipping point at varying distances along the path of dishonesty, and you have probably let yourself slide for longer or shorter durations during different times in your life. So we are still left with the question of what may account for these variations.

The answer, at least partially, is moral reminders – checkpoints that help you remember your standards. The number and regularity of the moral reminders in your life can greatly determine whether you rarely step off the path of integrity, and quickly get back on track when you do, or you find yourself at the bottom of the pit of immorality, unsure of how you ever fell so far.

The Power of Moral Reminders

For his research on the nature of integrity, psychology professor Dan Ariely didn’t just want to find out what made people more likely to cheat, but also what worked to keep people honest.

To discover what might be an effective integrity booster, he returned once again to his tried and true matrix test and the condition that allowed for cheating. This time he divided the participants into two groups. Before they started the test, he had one group think of ten books they had read in high school and the other group think about the ten commandments. When the results were tallied after the test, the first group had demonstrated “the same typical but widespread cheating” that had been found in previous conditions of the experiment. But for the group that recalled the ten commandments before beginning their matrices, the rate of cheating was 0%. This, Ariely notes, “was despite the fact that no one in the group was able to recall all ten.” A simple reminder about morality right before being faced with the opportunity to cheat had effectively thwarted the temptation.

What’s interesting is that when Ariely conducted another experiment, this time having a group of self-declared atheists swear on a Bible before beginning the matrix test, they didn’t cheat at all either. Ariely concluded that moral reminders are effective even if the specific “moral codes aren’t a part of your personal belief system.”

He found similar results when he tested the effectiveness of moral reminders in a different way. This time he had students from MIT and Yale sign a statement before taking the matrix test that said: “I understand that this experiment falls under the guidelines of the MIT/Yale honor code.” The act of signing the statement also resulted in zero cheating, and this was true even though neither university actually has an honor code. What mattered was that the student had to undergo a small ritual that got their brain thinking about morality right before that moral sense was challenged.

As Ariely concluded from this line of his research, “recalling moral standards at the time of temptation can work wonders to decrease dishonest behavior and potentially prevent it altogether.”

Virtue Forgetfulness and the Needed Regularity of Moral Reminders

The problem with human nature is that we are all prone to what might be called “virtue forgetfulness.” Our principles and values – our vision of the men we want to be — do not stay at the forefront of our minds at all times, ever at the ready to sway our choices. Instead, our craniums are so busy processing our day-to-day issues and concerns that more philosophical data ends up stored in the reserve trenches rather than the frontlines. It is for this reason that moral reminders are so effective and necessary in our lives: they act as cues in our environment that summon thoughts about our values from the back of our minds to the front, where they can influence our behavior and be brought to bear on the temptations before us.

(For an in-depth explanation of both the philosophy and science behind this phenomenon, I highly recommend reading this post: Hold Fast: How Forgetfulness Torpedos Your Journey to Becoming the Man You Want to Be, and Remembrance Is the Antidote.)

It’s not enough to receive a moral reminder every now and again; regularity is key. Ariely saw this truth played out when he had students from Princeton participate in his matrix test. Unlike MIT and Yale, Princeton does have its own honor code. Freshman must sign it when they enroll, and they attend lectures and discussions about the code when they first arrive on campus. Wanting to find out if such ethics training would have a long-term effect on their behavior, Ariely had a group of Princeton students participate in a matrix test two weeks after completing their honor code orientation. But the students still cheated at the average rate. It was only when they were asked to sign the same pre-test honor pledge that the MIT and Yale students had, that their cheating also dropped to zero.

Thus we see that becoming a man of integrity is not like riding a bicycle; you don’t learn how to do it once, and then expect to ride that ethical conviction as an automatic behavior for the rest of your life. Instead, acting with integrity is something you have to decide to do over and over again, and the more moral reminders you have in your life that reinforce your commitment, and the more regularly you encounter those reminders, the easier it is to stay on track.

How to Establish Moral Reminders in Your Life

I think the fact that virtue forgetfulness is a universal trait is reflected in the fact that all the world’s religions, despite greatly varying doctrines, employ moral reminders to keep people on the straight and narrow. Prescriptions to pray multiple times a day and regularly study one’s scriptures are really calls to partake in regular moral reminders that ritually reinforce one’s faith and its code of behavior.

For believers of some religions, these moral reminders can be quite concrete and intimate, as Ariely demonstrates in retelling “a story in the Talmud about a religious man who becomes desperate for sex and goes to a prostitute”:

“His religion wouldn’t condone this, of course, but at the time he feels that he has more pressing needs. Once alone with the prostitute, he begins to undress. As he takes off his shirt, he sees his tzitzit, an undergarment with four pieces of knotted fringe. Seeing the tzitzit reminds him of the mitzvoth (religious obligations) and he quickly turns around and leaves the room without violating his religious standards.”

Moral reminders aren’t just for theists, however. Atheists will argue that they can be just as moral as any religious person, and I for one don’t disagree with that. Yet an atheist’s morality must be guarded, cultivated, and strengthened like anyone else’s.

There are plenty of ways to create secular moral reminders that can be effective for the integrity-seeking atheist, as well as serve as additional supplements for theists who already partake in traditional religious reinforcers like prayer, scripture study, and weekly worship. The simplest thing to do is to try to consciously recall your moral standards before you’re faced with a temptation, as the students who thought about the ten commandments did before the matrix test. But of course in real life we often don’t know when a temptation is coming, and in the heat of the moment, we may be incapable or unwilling to summon our principles to the forefront of our minds. For this reason, you should cultivate built-in moral reminders that you can encounter each day without much effort.

“Truth is much more forcibly impressed upon the mind when accompanied by illustration, either in incident, anecdote, example or in a drawing or picture. Where the mere statement of truth in the abstract may fail of results, the illustration comes to the aid of truth and impresses and fixes the thought upon the mind.” –Henry F. Kletzing, Traits of Character, 1899

First, I recommend hanging up wall art — especially by the door through which you leave for school or work — that reminds you of your standards and the man you want to be each day. Here are some examples we have hanging up in our home:


Clockwise from top: 1) Benjamin Franklin’s daily affirmation, 2) an illustration from a 19th century book on character, 3) a modern play on a popular WWII song that reminds me to live up to my grandfather’s values.

Second, consider creating a personal manifesto and reading it each and every day, as AoM reader Zach Sumner did. You might also shrink it down into a laminated card you can carry in your wallet or pocket notebook and review regularly.

Another idea is to wear a piece of jewelry that reminds you of your standards. This could be an item with religious symbolism or a watch your upstanding grandfather gave you. If you wear it every day though, you can start taking it for granted, so make it a point to touch, fiddle with it, and think about its meaning consciously each day.

Even something like a tattoo that you often see can serve as a moral reminder of who you want to be.

There are also some smaller, simple things you can do to try to stay on track. Keep post-it notes on your computer with some kind of phrase or saying that motivates you throughout the day. Use a photo of your spouse/loved one/family as the background on your phone, so that you’re always reminded of the reason you’re trying to be a man of virtue. Take a page out of Ben Franklin’s book and use a pocket notebook to record any indiscretions you may commit – the simple act of writing it down puts it more in the forefront of your brain moving forward. Be creative in this endeavor and find what works for you!

Employing moral reminders is especially important when you’re away from home; Ariely theorizes that we’re more likely to engage in dishonest behavior when we’re on a trip since we’re outside our day-to-day routine, away from the eyes of those who watch us, and the social rules aren’t as clear. For such reasons, while there aren’t any statistics on how often infidelity occurs on business trips and the like, the popular perception of it as a frequent occurrence is probably not too far off the mark. So if you want to stay true while jetting around the world, be sure to pack some moral reminders along with your luggage. Check in with your significant other frequently, put her picture on your nightstand in your hotel room, and don’t take off your wedding ring – doing so isn’t just a literal move to signal your availability, it’s a psychological impulse to rid yourself of a moral reminder that might deter you from following through on your desire to cheat.

Pressing the Reset Button

Moral reminders won’t force you to do the right thing. They’re just checkpoints where hopefully you’ll be prompted to stop and reflect on your values, giving you the strength to resist temptation. But you can also choose to blow right through them.

So what do you do if you’ve never instituted moral reminders for yourself, or have lately chosen to ignore yours, and you find yourself far enough down the road of dishonesty – having maybe even reached the what-the-hell point and really gone on a bender — that you’re unhappy with yourself and want to find your way back to the man you’d like to be?

Just as it’s not surprising that all religions promote moral reminders to their adherents, it’s also not surprising that all faiths offer opportunities for repentance or renewal.

Christians have the weekly Sabbath; Catholics, the sacrament of confession; Jews, Yom Kippur; and Muslims, Ramadan. These rituals allow people a chance to hit the reset button on their lives and begin again with a fresh start.

As with moral reminders, just because you’re not religious doesn’t mean you don’t need such reset rituals just as much as the next fallible human being. There are secular events that can be used as psychological turning points in the same way: birthdays, New Years, moving, break-ups, new jobs, and so on. And you can intentionally create your own regular times of renewal, like bi-annual camping trips where you take time to reflect, sort through mistakes you’ve made, and commit to doing better in the next six months. Create your own rituals like writing about your regrets, tossing them into the campfire, and watching them burn away.

Series Conclusion

We hope you have enjoyed and gotten something out of this series on integrity. Ariely’s research on the subject does not offer all of the answers to the nature of morality, but we felt that it was a fascinating jumping-off point for creating personal reflection and group discussion. I know I have experienced the former myself, and I have not been disappointed in the thoughtful nature of the latter in the comments.

One of the things I found most interesting about Ariely’s research was how closely his results mirrored the sheep/wolves/sheepdog paradigm articulated by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. As we explored in our series on that subject, Grossman believes a very small percentage of the population are wolves, a very small percentage are sheepdogs, and the great majority of people are sheep.

What Ariely found in conducting his matrix test was that very few people cheated to the fullest extent possible. Likewise, very few people were strictly honest. Most people cheated…just by a little. Ariely reports that while they did lose money to the small number of big cheaters, they lost far more to the many people who were willing to each fudge a bit. Small lies, multiplied by lots of people, added up to a big impact.

While the media often focuses on the big problems of corruption in our time, and politicians debate how best to fix them with broad rules and regulations, the solution to establishing a more honest society may lie far closer to home. If each individual man committed to living a higher standard of integrity, if he strove not to compromise that integrity in even small ways, and set an example that inspired others to do likewise, our homes, neighborhoods, and nation would slowly become better places for all. Our world will never be perfect – either individually or societally – but why not do whatever you can, wherever you are, to make it a better place now and for those coming after us?




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

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Alexander August 19, 2013 at 7:34 pm

I must compliment you on this excellent series of articles. It reminds a man to look to himself when he sees problems in the world, to better himself instead of to point fingers at others.
“Judge not lest ye be judged.”

2 Daniel Rojas August 19, 2013 at 10:38 pm

Great series on integrity. Keep on Mr Mckay

3 Stephen August 20, 2013 at 9:08 am

In Alain de Botton’s “Religion for Atheists”, one of the virtues of religions that he identifies is their role in constantly encouraging men and women to cultivate virtue.

4 Nathan August 20, 2013 at 10:55 am

I really agree with the line

” the solution to establishing a more honest society may lie far closer to home.”

So often and really from both sides of the political isle, we hear these propositions for more regulations that will stop what is really a human problem. Weather it’s greed or wraith these are more than just issues to cover up with laws. These vices run really deep and not trying to change the heart makes it even worse. loopholes can pretty much always be found, but if the heart is changed, there would be a lot more freedom, for the snares of big sings no longer have a hold on us.

5 David Tindell August 20, 2013 at 11:32 am

An excellent series, as always. I would raise an issue, though, with the statement that atheists can be just as “moral” as people of religious faith. While I don’t doubt that the great majority of atheists consider themselves to be morally-upright individuals, the basis of their moral code ultimately is what each individual atheist determines it to be. Since they do not subscribe to the belief in an absolute authority (God), they must base any code on a secular authority, and we all know that secular authority is always changing (“evolving”, as they like to say in defense of changing what were once thought to be unchangeable standards). An American atheist would certainly have a different moral code than an atheist in Russia or China or Iran, perhaps significantly different. An American atheist might subscribe to a moral code based on the US Constitution, but then might very well feel free to embrace something that is contrary to the Constitution, if he truly believes his own view (and those of his peers) to be correct and the Constitution, on this particular issue, is wrong (or hasn’t yet “evolved” in the direction he wants it to go). Case in point: the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr., which embraced a moral code that was significantly different in many ways than that held by many white Americans at the time. But the Rev. Dr. King’s philosophy on civil rights was strongly shaped by his own religious beliefs, a fact which many of his admirers today choose to ignore. Where would the movement have gone had it not been led by men and women like King, who were people of strong faith?

6 Luis August 20, 2013 at 11:38 am

Great series, would it be possible to get it in ebook format?

Congrats again Mr and Mrs Mckay.

7 Mark August 20, 2013 at 6:36 pm

Great series! Thanks so much for your devotion to the betterment of men in a world that holds integrity and other manly virtues in contempt.

Zig Ziglar said: “Your input determines your outlook. Your outlook determines your output, and your output determines your future.”
He is absolutely right. One thing that has been of great help to me in my life is using the “empty” time that I would usually spend listening to music or otherwise (in the car, mowing grass, working on the car) to listening to a motivating speaker that encourages things such as integrity in his talks. Zig Ziglar is my favorite.
I think that may be of some help for some.
Thank you.

8 Andrew August 20, 2013 at 7:19 pm

I’ve enjoyed this series a great deal.

The first reminder that came to me was copy book headings, and the poem Gods of the Copy Book Headings.

9 Mike August 20, 2013 at 9:36 pm

Brett and Kate, this was another great series. Thanks, as always, for the time you put in to the site. Just a few points of consideration … I would suggest that the purpose of regular prayer isn’t primarily to partake in regular moral reminders that ritually reinforce faith and its code of behavior; rather, it is to enter into conversation with God to listen to what He has to say and understand His will for our lives. Of course, doing so on a regular basis should lead to reminders about what is morally expected, but it’s much bigger than that — it’s a dialogue of love. A second point, which may seem minor but I thought important: All Christians have the weekly Sabbath, including Catholic Christians. Catholics and Orthodox alike simply believe that, in addition to honoring and worshiping God on the Sabbath, Christ’s establishment of the sacraments, which includes Confession/Reconciliation, provides for intimate, physical contact with Him here and now. I call this out for those unfamiliar with Christianity and its historical developments, as they might infer from the post that Christians and Catholics are of wholly separate faiths when, in fact, Catholics are Christians, but not all who claim the Christian faith are Catholic. Again, this was a great post and a great series. Keep up the great work.

10 Germano Tomassetti August 21, 2013 at 7:54 am

Thank you very much for this. I discovered this website sometime within the last year or so when I found myself searching for more answers that I could no longer figure out for myself. As someone who grew up without a father in a house full of women and had a rather difficult and unique time growing up and finding myself and knowing what it truly means to be a man I’ve gained a lot from reading these articles and this series is probably ny favorite to date. Like I said thanks, you do more than you’ll ever know!

11 Jamin S August 21, 2013 at 8:34 am

I found this article and series to be highly motivating. Just as any man needs a regular morality check, I have found myself recently struggling with sticking to a diet that I have been on for nearly a year now. Using some of these points on constructing moral checkpoints I hope to be able to stick to my path and continue my weight loss.

12 Ryan August 21, 2013 at 11:40 am

Great series. I love the research and time put into each part to discuss integrity. This is something that everyone can improve on and by breaking down the different ideas really helped. Now, when I’m out, I think to myself if the action I’m about to take will set me down the wrong side of the pyramid. Great work!

13 Matt Moriarty August 21, 2013 at 3:52 pm

Gabe Kapler on PEDs in baseball and integrity

“I made the choice to play clean for a myriad of reasons. Most importantly, I have an obnoxiously loud conscience. I knew I wouldn’t be able to rest while cheating. When I do something, anything, of which I’m not proud (and I’ve displayed my fair share of selfish behavior), I experience guilt. I carry it around like a ton of bricks and was able to anticipate my inability to live with the decision to take the shortcut”

14 AJ August 22, 2013 at 12:43 pm

Love this article! I cherish the any form of publication that makes me examine my life and makes me want to be a better man. I can’t even begin to tell people how having a piece of “Art” to look at every day to remind myself daily has greatly changed my life. Here is my little story or rant if you will. In my life I have had 2 liver transplants. Needless to say I’ve been through the ringer a few times. A few years ago after my second transplant (2006) I was going though some personal perils. One of my cousins suggested that we go get-matching tattoos. We each got the phrase “LOVE LIFE” on different parts on our bodies. Since then I cannot count how many times I’ve been having a crappy day where I was hating everything, and everyone only to look down (at my arm) and see that phrase “LOVE LIFE”. Its a constant reminder to me that things don’t necessarily get easier just because you work harder, and that no matter what happens its ultimately up to me to make the best of things, and that my happiness is no one else’s responsibility. Thanks again for the article AOM. Looking forward to future posts like this one!

15 Jake August 26, 2013 at 2:01 pm

Interesting articles and fascinating comments.

Personally I suspect the honest atheist has an easier time developing and adhering to standards of integrity given that they can develop with the times and are more fine grained with developments in technology.

Still, there is the nagging issue of moral nihilism. We can choose principles for ourselves, we may have evolved social norms. But are there really any objective ethical standards? For example, is killing always wrong, is theft always immoral? It is easy to construct scenarios wherein they are not. A former professor of mine declined treatment, knowing it would lead to his death, rather than lead his young family into financial ruin. Did he die a murderer or a hero?

Maybe we need to delete the terms “right” and “wrong” and speak of help and harm. A woman whose husband has advanced dementia seeks refuge from bitter loneliness in the arms of another man. She tends to her husband daily, ensuring he is cared for, not forgotten. She is a healthier, happier person and her ill husband benefits, she benefits, her new partner benefits. Adulteress or hero?

16 David Tindell August 27, 2013 at 8:46 am

There are ways to relieve loneliness without jumping into bed with someone. When you marry someone, you marry them for the good times and the bad. The married woman who cavorts with another man while her husband is in the nursing home is no better than the woman who cavorts while her husband is on duty overseas, or away on a business trip. The excuse that the husband has dementia is no excuse. What she’s saying is, “He doesn’t know.” Well, if she conceals an affair from an absent husband, he doesn’t know either, does he? The same applies for a man whose wife is in that situation, of course. And what does it say about the man who knowingly sleeps with a married woman while her husband is absent/institutionalized?

17 John August 27, 2013 at 8:56 pm

Another useful tip is the Catholic idea of a “near occasion of sin.”

Basically, don’t put too much trust in your own willpower. If you can avoid tempting situations, do so. It doesn’t make you weak, it makes you prudent.

18 Richard August 28, 2013 at 6:15 pm

Thank you. Because of this series, I was motivated to join a group of real men as a way to hold myself and each accountable. Thank you again, for all you do with this site. I tell my wife constantly, it’s the last truly decent place on the internet.

19 Alpheus August 31, 2013 at 12:18 am

I would have to confess that I haven’t yet read the other three parts of this series yet, but I nonetheless found this particular article interesting and useful enough to realize I need to read the other three. It’s good to have a reminder not just to be honest, but to constantly remind ourselves to be honest!

I do take issue with what David Tindell said about atheists not being able to be moral because they lack the foundation for morality. Although I believe in God, I nonetheless have seen that atheists can work to be moral, and have seen people who choose to believe in God nonetheless find ways to be immoral, and sometimes even to justify their wickedness. The key is to decide to be honest with others, to respect life, liberty and property, and to pursue happiness while keeping within these bounds.

We can’t rely on a belief of God to give us a strict foundation for morality, though, because there are too many ways to believe in God; having said that, when you consider that the period of Judges is characterized by the phrase “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes”, and then in First Kings, when the Israelites sought to establish a king, the Lord says to Samuel “They do not reject you, they reject me”, it tells me that, despite the rough-and-tumble period that Judges was, God preferred it when people chose to do right for themselves.

Having said all this, I find it funny when an atheist seeks to be moral, but mocks the very religion(s) that are likely the foundation of what we consider right and just. And I would add that any soul who’s heart is pure, and who honestly seeks to do the right thing, will do well at Judgement, even if he makes mistakes along the way, while any soul who knows what is right in his heart, but nonetheless chooses to do wrong, will have to face both the wrath of Man (sometimes in subtle, but horrible ways) and will find himself ashamed at the Day of Judgement as well–and this will be true of any person, regardless of what they choose to believe concerning God.

20 Michael S. Hilton September 7, 2013 at 9:28 pm

Another fantastic series. I’ve done a lot of self-examination while reading this and noticed some small choices I’ve been making that are dishonest to myself and to others. This article has served as a “moral reminder” for me. Thank you for all the hard work you put into this series!

21 Mau September 10, 2013 at 10:53 am

The idea of moral reminders reminds me of something I did long ago as a child of having a sword necklace. It represented strength through virtue. This was a great series.
Like other readers, it’s time of self-examination. Life is great, but we can make it even better by bettering ourselves.

22 Cyrus September 10, 2013 at 8:38 pm
23 Jake September 19, 2013 at 1:12 pm

David, consider that people do divorce — the “till death do us part” is a myth, not even found in the christian bible. If the woman divorced her demented husband (no-fault: 1 year separation w/ no intention to reconcile in this jurisdiction), she would be free to seek the company of whomever she wised. I think the woman is heroic for standing by her dying spouse and is to be supported in her times of agony.

She is married, but without a spouse. Would you really rather that she exercise her perfectly legal options and divorce?

“The married woman who cavorts with another man while her husband is in the nursing home is no better than the woman who cavorts while her husband is on duty overseas, or away on a business trip.”

Strong words. I entirely disagree with your “analogies”. I’ll opt for compassion or legalistics in defining what makes me a man.

24 George September 23, 2013 at 1:33 pm

@Jake – Your moral relativism and what if scenarios aren’t helpful…I knew plenty of guys with that same perspective in college, they simply used it as a way to sound smart and rationalize acting like douchebags.
I believe there are objective moral standards and right and wrong- a help/harm paradigm is too weak to be helpful in ethical scenarios…it is far too easy to rationalize into serving our own interests. I also fail to see the connection between technology and following a standard of integrity…technology might make for different scenarios but the underlying moral/ethical dilemmas remain the same as they have for generations-seeing how our ancestors dealt with these dilemmas is is one of the benefits of studying history. If anything, technology makes for greater consequences to immoral actions.
@ Brett & Kate- great series of articles! Thank you for the time and effort. This is a great topic that isn’t discussed nearly enough in today’s world.

25 Sean M November 2, 2013 at 12:10 am

Another great series. I’m a big fan of the series/articles that look into social psychology and the like. It’s high time for a societal change and increased knowledge on ways we can go about it are always welcome.
I read this shortly after internally battling with whether I should tell a professor, who has taught her class next to nothing, that she posted my score on an exam higher than I actually got.. I ended up choosing to tell her, and it lifted a massive weight off my shoulders. Humans have a drive to succeed and be financially secure, but I think even more than that we desire to be virtuous.
Thanks again so much for these articles.

26 Skyler January 18, 2014 at 6:33 pm

This was a fantastic series of articles! Thank you both so much for all that you put into this website. I am new to AoM but it has become solidly planted as my go to place for interesting and valuable articles that relate directly to my personal growth as a man.

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