in: Behavior, Character, Featured

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

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

Vintage golfer on green looking at hole bale foreground.

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

Read the Series

Part I: Why Small Choices Count
Part III: How to Stop the Spread of Immorality
Part IV: The Power of Moral Reminders

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

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