Menanteau Serfontein – 21 January 2022
This is Part 1 of a Two-Part Series about some of the practical challenges we face in maintaining our Integrity/Moral Principles.
Integrity is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles that one consistently lives by, i.e. steadfast adherence to a strict moral or ethical code.
A key part of Integrity is “doing what is right, even when no-one is watching” and is characterized by doing one’s duty, keeping one’s word, being upright, trustworthy, incorruptible, faithful and reliable. The Afrikaans author and poet, C.J. Langenhoven, said: “Doen wat reg is wanneer die regter weg is.” Directly translated it means: “Do what is right when the judge is away.” (Read: “Integrity and Honesty” and “Dedication to Truth – Tool/Technique 3 – M. Scott Peck”)
While the foundation of integrity is having a firm moral code of right and wrong, it can also be enormously helpful, even crucial, to understand the psychological and environmental factors that can tempt us to stray from that code.
- What’s at the root of our decision to sometimes compromise our moral principles?
- What kinds of things lead us to be less honest and what kinds of things help us to be more upright?
- What are some practical ways we can check our temptations to be immoral or unethical?
- How can we strengthen not only our own integrity, but the integrity of society as well?
Why Do We Compromise Our Integrity?
Every day we are faced with “little” decisions that reflect on the strength of our integrity.
- When tempted to engage in unethical behaviour, do you weigh up the possible advantages of the behaviour against the chances of getting caught and the resulting embarrassment and even the punishment that you might have to endure?
- If so, are you prepared to “take a chance” if you perceive that the reward (often financial, material and fame) are worth the risk?
I would like to believe that most people, when they conduct honest self-examination, prefer to feel good about their sense of integrity, however for psychological reasons people would sometimes rationalise their unethical behaviour by arguing that “it wasn’t that bad” or “everyone else is doing it”.
Through research, the Israeli-American professor of psychology and behavioural economics and author, Dan Ariely, discovered that people’s true motivations for cheating and being dishonest are not merely based on the basis of risk vs. reward, but that it is also greatly influenced by the degree to which the behaviour affects our ability to still see ourselves in a positive light. Ariely explains these two opposing drives:
On one hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honourable people. We want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and feel good about ourselves (psychologists call this ego motivation). On the other hand, we want to benefit from cheating, e.g. in respect of money. Clearly, these two motivations are in conflict. How can we secure the benefits of cheating and at the same time still view ourselves as honest, wonderful people?
This is where our cognitive flexibility comes into play. Thanks to this human skill, as long as we cheat by only a little bit, we can benefit from cheating, and still view ourselves as marvellous human beings. This balancing act is the process of rationalization (explaining away), and it is the basis of what we’ll call the “fudge factor theory.”
The “fudge factor theory” explains how we decide where to draw the line between “okay,” and “not okay,” between decisions that make us feel guilty and those we find a way to confidently justify. The more we’re able to rationalize our decisions as morally acceptable, the wider this fudge factor margin becomes. And most of us are highly adept at it: ‘Everyone else is doing it’. ‘This just levels the playing field’. ‘They’re such a huge company that this won’t affect them at all’. ‘They don’t pay me enough anyway’. ‘He owes me this’. ‘She cheated on me once too’. ‘If I don’t, my future will be ruined’.
As professor Ariely puts it: “Essentially, we cheat up to the level that allows us to retain our self-image as reasonably honest individuals.”
The more you’re able to justify your immoral actions, the greyer the line between what you deem right and wrong gets, and the wider your “fudge factor margin” becomes, the more immoral behaviour you can commit without feeling guilty.
Where you draw the line and how wide you allow your “fudge factor margin” to become, is influenced by a variety of external and internal conditions, however the most important pitfall is “taking your first, however small, dishonest step”.
“Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom.” (Song of Songs 2:15)
Have you ever watched as the gross corruption of a once admired public figure was revealed and wondered how he ever fell so far from grace?
In most cases, the celebrity concerned wasn’t involved in just one corrupt act – in fact, his journey to the dark side almost assuredly began with a seemingly small decision, something that appeared fairly inconsequential at the time, like fudging just a number or two on one of his accounts. But once the toes of his foot were in the door of dishonesty, his crimes very slowly got bigger and bigger.
Research findings have proved that a single decision can greatly alter the path we take and the strength of our integrity. By taking just a small first step down a dishonest path can set off a cycle of rationalization and further dishonest behaviour, which can lead you away from your values and principles and into more serious misdeeds.
When you make a mistake or a choice that’s out of line with your values, a gap opens up between your actual behaviour and your self-image as a good, honest, competent person. Because of this gap, you experience cognitive dissonance – which is a kind of mental anxiety or discomfort caused by having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes about behavioural decisions.
Since humans don’t like this feeling of discomfort, our brains quickly work to bridge the divide between how we acted and our positive self-image by rationalising (explaining away) the behaviour as really not so bad after all, e.g. a student who decided to cheat in an exam will soothe his conscience by telling himself things like, “I did know the answer, I just couldn’t think of it at the time,” or “Most of the other students cheated too,” or “The test wasn’t fair in the first place – the professor never said that subject was going to be covered.” He’ll find ways to frame his decision as no big deal.
A student who didn’t cheat in the exam and achieved a lower grade than the one who cheated, might still wonder whether he had made the right choice. Feeling uncertain about a decision can cause some dissonance too, so this student will also seek to buttress the confidence he feels in his choice by reflecting on the wrongness of cheating and how good it feels to have a clear conscience.
As each student reflects on and justifies his choice, his attitude about cheating and his self-perception will subtly change. The student who cheated will loosen his stance about when cheating is okay, and feel that there’s nothing wrong with being the kind of person who does it a little for a good reason; his ability to rationalize dishonest choices will go up and so will his fudge factor margin.
The student who maintained his integrity, will feel more strongly than before that cheating is never acceptable, and his ability to rationalize dishonesty will go down, along with his personal fudge factor margin as well.
To further decrease the ambiguity and increase the certainty each student feels about their divergent decisions, they will thereafter each make more choices in line with their respective new stances.
A single decision is all it took to put them on very different paths. As we can see, taking just one dishonest step can begin “a process of entrapment—action, justification, further action—that increases our intensity and commitment, and may end up taking us far from our original intentions, values and principles.”
Ah, What the Hell?
A person who makes a series of dishonest decisions, will ultimately reach the “what-the-hell” point.
What professor Ariely found is that participants who just cheated here and there at the start of the experiment would eventually reach an “honesty threshold,” the point where they would think: “What the hell, as long as I’m a cheater, I might as well get the most out of it.” They would then begin cheating at nearly every opportunity. The first decision to cheat led to another, until their fudge factor margin stretched from a sliver into a yawning chasm, and concerns about integrity fell right off the cliff.
Once you commit one dishonest act, your moral standards loosen, your self-perception as an honest person gets a little hazier, your ability to rationalize goes up, and your fudge factor margin increases. Where you draw the line between ethical and unethical, honest and dishonest, moves outward.
From his research, Ariely has found that committing a dishonest act in one area of your life not only leads to more dishonesty in that one area, but ends up corrupting other areas of your life as well. “A single act of dishonesty,” he argues, “can change a person’s behaviour from that point onward.”
What this means is that if you want to maintain your integrity, the best thing you can do is to never take that first dishonest step. No matter how small and inconsequential a choice may seem at the time, it may start you down a path that tarnishes your moral compass, leads you to commit more serious misdeeds, and causes you to compromise your fundamental principles.
An important reality is that not everyone who makes one bad choice ends up morally depraved and utterly crooked. All of us have made bad choices/mistakes and most of us got back on track again. But why take the risk of decreasing your chances of turning yourself around once you start down an unethical road?
The good news is that no matter where you are on the continuum of the “fudge factor margin”, we always have an opportunity to take responsibility, apologise, change direction and get back onto the right path. Also, from a Biblical perspective, the following scriptures apply:
“You will never succeed in life if you try to hide your sins. Confess them and give them up; then God will show mercy to you.” – Proverbs 28:13
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” – 1 John 1:9
Note: A large amount of the content of this Essay was derived from An Article entitled “What Strengthens and Weakens Our Integrity – Why Small Choices Count” by Brett & Kate McKay who are the Founders of “Art of Manliness” August 5, 2013 • Last updated: September 25, 2021 https://www.artofmanliness.com/character/behavior/what-strengthens-and-weakens-our-integrity-part-i-why-small-choices-count/
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