Integrity and happiness are intimately connected. So, one simple rule aids tremendously in the achievement of happiness:

If you see a lot of people doing something, it’s almost certainly not worth doing.

I see a lot of people buying a lot of stuff, thinking that more stuff means more happiness. I see a lot of people resenting success, thinking that success amidst failure means injustice. I see a lot of people pursuing good press instead of good work, thinking that perception is reality. I see a lot of people avoiding the roots of their feelings, thinking that emotions are supernatural commands to the body that must be obeyed.

Most people are wrong.

It’s natural to want to conform, for better or for worse. We’re social creatures, and we certainly benefit from cooperation and learning from our elders. But interestingly, the number of people who believe something in no way affects the truth.

Let that sink in. The number of people who believe something in no way affects the truth. Astronomical sales of a holy book do not make the Earth 4,499,994,000 years younger than it is simply because over a quarter of the United States believe the words literally.1 As John Oliver once said, “Who gives a shit…You don’t need people’s opinion on a fact. You might as well have a poll asking, ‘Which number is bigger, 15 or 5?’ Or, ‘Do owls exist?’ Or, ‘Are there hats?’”2

People tend to do what others do rather than risk being different. The tendency to seek conformity with the crowd is known as cohesion.3 Cohesion can be a harmless artifact of evolution when it manifests itself in an area such as social norms, like facing the wrong way in an elevator or wearing black eyeliner, nail polish, and trench coats to shun conformity. But it can actually impact your sense of self when it comes to definable rights and wrongs, like the line test of the Asch Conformity Experiment, a math problem, or choosing whether to shoot a Blood for Crip initiation.

Cohesion can damage your sense of self because, unless you are the kind of person who thought Billy Zabka was the good guy, you will recognize when your beliefs are out of line with reality and you won’t enjoy it. Most of us like to think we’re the good guy, the Vigilante – and only a Villain can stand knowing that he lacks integrity.

There is a lack of integrity where a right answer is known and a wrong answer is chosen. And that makes us unhappy.

Integrity is literally the integration of body and mind. This means acting in accordance with what you believe to be true. You may sometimes be mistaken in holding a particular belief, but being open to correction is important to integrity. The only alternative is cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance results when you consciously perceive a right answer and continue to act according to a wrong one. When we experience this inconsistency, we tend to become uncomfortable.4 We’re strongly driven to either resolve this dissonance or to avoid any experience inconsistent with our beliefs altogether. That choice – to either resolve or to avoid the problem – is where integrity comes in.

A lack of integrity leads one to avoid cognitive dissonance. This avoidance is why you don’t see a lot of mild-mannered arguments from anti-evolution nuts. They have no rationale for their beliefs, and they are confronted all around by facts that refute the beliefs. They repeatedly refuse to act to resolve the dissonance brought on by the facts, but cognitive dissonance still makes them uncomfortable. Because none of them want to be Billy Zabka, either, this leaves them confused and angry. A desperate attempt to avoid the facts leads to arguments fueled much more by emotion than by logic – especially inviting for the supernatural source and dodging the question fallacies.

A lack of integrity is why you have trouble talking finance with people who don’t save their money despite having the means to do so. They know they’re screwing up. They just don’t want to let themselves hear it.

If you do what you believe to be wrong, it logically follows that you will be overwhelmed by negative emotions. You won’t like yourself. Consistently acting with integrity – especially when most people disagree with your decision – is atypical. When your integrity is at stake, drop yor drive for cohesion. Do the atypical thing; it will bring you much more happiness than following the crowd.

  1. Gallup’s annual Values and Beliefs poll, which interestingly focuses entirely on values and beliefs based on anything but reason.
  2. Last Week Tonight, a while ago. Still true.
  3. Cohesion was famously tested by the Asch Conformity Experiment. Would You Fall For This? did a brief introduction to it by making a lot of people feel very uncomfortable in an elevator.
  4. In his book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, psychologist Leon Festinger explained, “Cognitive dissonance can be seen as an antecedent condition which leads to activity oriented toward dissonance reduction just as hunger leads toward activity oriented toward hunger reduction.” So, at least some psychologists believe it’s a pretty damn strong drive.

4 Comments on "Basic Training, Vol. 3: The Integrity Rule"

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Colin @ Building-Income
Fantastic article. Well written and thought provoking. I admit that I was immediately attracted to by the awesome Karate Kid picture, one of my all time favorite movies. Integrity is a tough subject. We’ve recently been shown through media and politics that principals and ethics are situational now. How we feel is more important than truth and facts which is complete Bizarro world. As your article points out, doing the wrong thing when we know better, will make us normal folks feel bad. Even when we try to rationalize our way out of it, the little voice in our head… Read more »
The Lady
It’s funny. I’ve been noodling on the concept of cognitive dissonance for some time; trying to frame it within a personal finance context. However, the tricky thing about cognitive dissonance is that some people seem to be immune to the flood of negative feelings that most experience. Certainly, emotional self-regulation and integrity are subjective, even when facts are not. But truth is an interpretation and that’s the rub, I believe. Distinguishing fact from truth. Dang. I feel like I got tricked into a philosophy conversation by a cute karate boy. (That’s kinda hot.) Thanks for the great article. And as… Read more »