What Strengthens and Weakens Our Integrity

When we adhere to moral codes, our integrity can grow. Without values and a sense of honesty, the world becomes an unfeeling place where no one cares about anyone else’s welfare but their own

Vintage pointer index finger pointing up with rope tied around.

We covered the notion of the “Pyramid of Choice” in the first piece in this series, and how taking an initial dishonest action may put a person on a road of progressively major sins that leads them far away from their original values.

However, most of us do not fall into the gutter of absolute corruption and depravity as a result of one or many poor decisions. Instead, we often make a few poor decisions before deciding to right the ship and get back on course.

What regulates our actions and pushes us to come to a halt? What factors influence how far we go down the road of dishonesty before turning around?

Part of it stems from our desire to achieve the balance we discussed before between wanting to profit from dishonesty and yet being able to perceive ourselves as moral people. Too many transgressions might taint our positive self-image and prick our conscience, causing us to retrace our steps back to a position where we don’t feel so bashful.

However, individuals seem to hit this tipping point at various points along the route of dishonesty, and you have most likely let yourself drop for larger or shorter periods of time at various points in your life. So we’re still left with the issue of what may be causing these differences.

Moral reminders — checkpoints that help you recall your principles – are part of the solution. The amount and frequency of moral reminders in your life may have a significant impact on whether you seldom stray from the road of integrity and swiftly return to it when you do, or whether you end yourself at the bottom of the pit of immorality, unclear of how you got there.

Moral Reminders’ Influence

Dan Ariely, a psychology professor, wanted to know not just what made individuals more prone to cheat, but also what worked to keep people honest for his study on the nature of integrity.

He went back to his tried and tested matrix test and the circumstance that enabled cheating to figure out what would be an effective integrity booster. He separated the participants into two groups this time. He made one group think of ten novels they had read in high school and the other group think of the ten commandments before they began the exam. The first group had shown “the same conventional but widespread cheating” as had been observed in prior circumstances of the experiment when the results were tallied following the test. Cheating was zero percent in the group that remembered the 10 commandments before starting their matrices. “Despite the fact that no one in the group was able to recollect all 10,” writes Ariely. The temptation had been successfully avoided by a simple reminder about morality just before being presented with the chance to cheat.

What’s more fascinating is that when Ariely repeated the experiment, this time having a group of self-proclaimed atheists swear on a Bible before starting the matrix test, they didn’t cheat at all. Moral reminders are helpful, according to Ariely, even if the precise “moral norms aren’t a part of your own belief system.”


When he examined the impact of moral reminders in a different approach, he discovered comparable findings. Before taking the matrix exam, he had students from MIT and Yale sign a declaration that declared, “I realize that this experiment is conducted in accordance with the MIT/Yale honor code.” The act of signing the declaration also resulted in no cheating, despite the fact that neither institution had an honor code in place. What mattered was that the student had to go through a brief ritual to get their brain thinking about morality before being tested on it.

“Recalling moral principles at the moment of temptation may work wonders to lessen dishonest conduct and perhaps avoid it entirely,” Ariely found from this line of study.

Virtue Forgetting and the Need for Moral Reminders on a Regular Basis

The difficulty with human nature is that we are all susceptible to “virtue forgetting.” Our beliefs and ideals – our image of the men we want to be – aren’t always at the forefront of our thoughts, ready to impact our decisions. Instead, our brains are so preoccupied with processing our daily problems and worries that more philosophical information gets stored in the reserve trenches rather than on the frontlines. Moral reminders are useful and vital in our lives because they operate as signals in our surroundings, bringing ideas about our values from the back of our brains to the front, where they may affect our conduct and be brought to bear on the temptations in front of us.

(I strongly suggest reading this article for an in-depth explanation of both the philosophy and physics underlying this phenomenon: 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 have a moral lesson every now and then; consistency is essential. When Ariely had students from Princeton engage in his matrix test, he observed this reality play out. Princeton, unlike MIT and Yale, has its own honor code. When freshmen enroll, they must sign the code and attend lectures and debates about it when they first come on school. Ariely had a group of Princeton students engage in a matrix test two weeks after finishing their honor code orientation to see whether such ethics instruction will have a long-term influence on their conduct. However, the pupils still cheated at a high rate. Only when they were asked to sign the same pre-test honor promise that the MIT and Yale students did, did they admit to cheating.

As a result, we can see that being a man of integrity is not like learning to ride a bicycle; you don’t learn how to ride a bicycle once and expect to ride that ethical belief as a natural activity for the rest of your life. Acting with integrity is something you must repeatedly decide to do, and the more moral reminders you have in your life that reaffirm your commitment, and the more often you face those reminders, the simpler it is to remain on course.


How to Make Moral Reminders a Habit in Your Life

I believe that virtue forgetting is a universal feature, as shown by the fact that, despite very differing teachings, all global religions need moral reminders to keep people on the straight and narrow. Prescriptions to pray many times a day and read one’s scriptures on a regular basis are basically requests to participate in frequent moral reminders that ritually reinforce one’s beliefs and code of conduct.

As Ariely explains in relating “a narrative in the Talmud about a pious man who gets thirsty for sex and goes to a prostitute,” these moral reminders may be highly real and personal for adherents of various religions:

“Of course, his faith forbids it, but he believes he has more important demands at the moment.” He starts to undress once he is alone with the prostitute. As he removes his shirt, he notices his tzitzit, a fringed undergarment with four knotted parts. When he sees the tzitzit, it reminds him of his religious commitments, so he swiftly turns around and exits the room without breaking any of his religious rules.”

Moral reminders, on the other hand, aren’t simply for theists. Atheists would argue that they can be just as moral as someone who is religious, and I don’t disagree. However, much like anybody else’s morals, an atheist’s must be guarded, developed, and reinforced.

There are a variety of secular moral reminders that may be beneficial for the integrity-seeking atheist, as well as extra supplements for theists who already engage in conventional religious reinforcers such as prayer, scripture study, and weekly worship. The easiest thing to do is attempt to recollect your moral values deliberately before being tempted, like the students who thought about the ten commandments before the matrix exam did. However, in real life, we frequently don’t know when a temptation will strike, and we may be unable or unwilling to bring our beliefs to the forefront of our thoughts in the heat of the moment. As a result, you should build built-in moral reminders that you may encounter without much effort on a daily basis.

“When truth is accompanied with illustration, whether in the form of an event, story, example, or a sketch or image, it is much more forcefully imprinted onto the mind.” Where the abstract explanation of truth may fail to produce results, the example comes to the rescue of truth and impresses and imprints the notion onto the mind.” –Henry F. Kletzing, Character Traits, 1899

First, I propose hanging wall art that reminds you of your ideals and the man you want to be every day — particularly near the door through which you depart for school or work. Here are a few examples that we have in our home:

Vintage what good shall I do this day moral reminders.

1) Benjamin Franklin’s daily affirmation, 2) a picture from a 19th century book on character, and 3) a contemporary take on a classic WWII song that encourages me to live up to my grandfather’s principles, clockwise from top.


Second, like AoM reader Zach Sumner did, try writing a personal manifesto and reading it every day. You might also make a laminated card that you can keep in your wallet or pocket notepad and examine on a regular basis.

Wearing a piece of jewelry that reminds you of your values is another option. This might be a religiously significant object or a watch given to you by your honorable grandpa. If you wear it every day, though, you may begin to take it for granted, so make it a point to touch it, fidget with it, and deliberately consider its significance each day.

Even a common sight such as a tattoo might act as a moral reminder of who you wish to be.

You may also do some little, easy things to help you remain on track. Post-it notes containing a statement or saying that stimulates you throughout the day should be kept on your computer. Use a picture of your spouse/loved one/family as your phone’s wallpaper so you’re reminded of why you’re attempting to be a man of virtue. Take a leaf from Ben Franklin’s book and keep a pocket notebook to keep track of any transgressions you may have committed — the act of writing it down brings it to the forefront of your mind in the future. In this attempt, be creative and uncover what works for you!

When you’re away from home, moral reminders are more crucial; Ariely theorizes that we’re more prone to engage in dishonest conduct since we’re out of our normal routine, away from others who monitor us, and the social standards aren’t as evident. As a result, although there are no data on how often infidelity happens on business trips and other such occasions, the widespread view of it as a common occurrence is probably not far off the mark. So, if you want to be loyal to yourself while traveling the world, carry some moral reminders with your baggage. Check in with your significant other frequently, keep her picture on your hotel room nightstand, and don’t remove your wedding ring – doing so isn’t just a physical gesture to signal your availability; it’s also a psychological impulse to remove a moral reminder that might deter you from pursuing your desire to cheat.

The Reset Button is pressed.

Moral reminders will not compel you to act morally. They’re just checkpoints where you’ll ideally be inspired to pause and consider your ideals, giving you the fortitude to reject temptation. However, you have the option of blowing straight through them.

So, what do you do if you’ve never established moral reminders for yourself, or if you’ve recently chosen to ignore yours, and you’ve gotten far enough down the road of dishonesty – perhaps even to the point where you’ve gone completely insane – that you’re unhappy with yourself and want to get back to the man you’d like to be?


It should come as no surprise that all religions encourage moral reminders to their followers, and that all faiths provide chances for repentance or regeneration.

The weekly Sabbath is observed by Christians; Catholics observe the sacrament of confession; Jews observe Yom Kippur; and Muslims observe Ramadan. People might use these rituals to push the reset button on their life and start over with a clean slate.

Just like with moral reminders, just because you’re not religious doesn’t imply you don’t need such reset routines. Birthdays, New Years, relocation, break-ups, new jobs, and other secular events may all be utilized as psychological turning points in the same manner. You may also plan your own regular periods of renewal, such as bi-annual camping excursions when you reflect, sort through your errors, and pledge to doing better in the following six months. Make up your own rituals, such as writing down your regrets and throwing them into the flame to burn away.

Finale of the series

We hope you’ve enjoyed and learned something from this integrity series. Although Ariely’s study on the topic does not provide all of the answers to the nature of morality, we found it to be an intriguing starting place for personal introspection and group debate. I know I’ve had firsthand experience with the former, and I’m not disappointed by the thoughtfulness of the latter in the comments.

One of the things I found most intriguing about Ariely’s study was how closely his findings resembled Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s sheep/wolf/sheepdog model. Grossman thinks that wolves make up a very tiny proportion of the population, sheepdogs make up a very small percentage of the population, and sheep make up the vast majority of people, as we discussed in our series on the issue.

In doing his matrix test, Ariely discovered that relatively few participants cheated to the utmost degree feasible. Similarly, just a few individuals were completely honest. The majority of folks cheated…just a little. While they did lose money to a small number of huge cheats, Ariely claims that they lost significantly more money to the many individuals who were willing to each falsify a little. Small falsehoods amplified by a large number of individuals have a significant influence.

While the media often focuses on our time’s major corruption concerns, and politicians discuss how best to address them via broad laws and regulations, the key to creating a more honest society may be much closer to home. Our homes, communities, and country would gradually become better places for everybody if each individual man committed to living a higher level of integrity, if he strived not to compromise that integrity in even tiny ways, and if he set an example that encouraged others to do the same. Our world will never be perfect – individually or collectively – so why not do what you can, wherever you are, to make it a better place today and for future generations?



Read the Complete Series

Part I: Why Do Small Decisions Matter? Part 2: Bridging the Gap Between Our Actions and Their Repercussions Part III: How to Prevent Immorality from Spreading

Part I: Why Do Small Decisions Matter? Part 2: Bridging the Gap Between Our Actions and Their Repercussions Part III: How to Prevent Immorality from Spreading


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



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