The Secret to Integrity? Gratitude.

In order to cultivate integrity in a young person, it essential to explain the logic (including potential repercussions) of their actions. Educators (coaches, parents, teachers of any kind) must lay the tracks for young learners so that one day they might be able to run down them. It is important that we don’t assume qualities such as integrity are obvious. Those qualities must be taught.

Hunger is obvious. So is the cure. But why is it wrong to eat the sandwich that isn’t yours? If hunger is the problem, isn’t eating the solution? Sure, eating the sandwich will alleviate the immediate concern – instant gratification – but the act will negatively impact the person from whom it is stolen. That other person will remain hungry. Additionally, that person will feel slighted, cheated, and deceived. It’s important to lay this framework down so that young people can begin to construct a logic of relative opportunity. “I have increased my opportunity but limited someone else’s.” In the grand scheme of human development, this often happens implicitly. But we’d be well-served to provide young people with explicit examples.

When these sort of “basic” ideas come up in workshops and professional development sessions, they run the risk of being dismissed. Too simple, some say.

Not true. And certainly not reflected in behavior, as selfish behavior remains a common concern in many companies, organizations, and teams.  

We have to teach the logic. It is a tall task – but it gets easier the more you do it, and it is always worth it. By being explicit about the logic, young people are able to more efficiently construct conceptual frameworks, apply them to their interactions, and strive for the nuance that we are all so regularly asked to employ.

If it can be broken down into ‘anchor’ concepts, that’s even better. For example, we explain that the sandwich-stealer has struck on three fronts:

  • Limited the opportunity of the person they stole from
  • Degraded the trust and structure of the relationship (community)
  • Potentially negatively impacted themselves through guilt and/or shame

Again, the building blocks might seem fairly obvious. What is less obvious, but equally important, is the conceptual connective tissue that binds the person to the logic and aids the motivation to follow through on virtues such as integrity.

So what’s the deal with adults who, assumedly, understand integrity and decide to behave against that virtue?

Two ideas stand out. The first is that perhaps the logic outlined above was never explained to them in any explicit way. Perhaps integrity was alluded to, loosely identified, and not upheld by those around them in their developmental years. The second is that perhaps they are not grateful enough.

An airborne sandwich thief.

The Role of Gratitude

Dr. David DeSteno of Northeastern University (Boston) works to identify character traits which have meaningful impacts on behavior. He has identified compassion, pride, and gratitude as an essential trifecta. Gratitude in particular, based on a 2014 study, seems to influence behavior in ways which might not seem immediately obvious… it might have the power to enhance our integrity.

DeSteno’s findings suggest that, when measured and compared to two other emotional conditions (happy, neutral), gratitude had the largest impact on the subsequent experiment, which measured integrity.

If participants were grateful, they were less likely to cheat on subsequent tests.

This makes logical sense as we imagine the application to real-world scenarios, like the sandwich. If you are feeling ungrateful, wronged by the world, and untrusting of your environment, then you might be more likely to eat the sandwich when hungry. Who cares about the next person, what have they ever done for you? But if you have built a positive relationship to your environment and are grateful for that, then you might be more likely to recognize that the sandwich does not belong to you. Maybe you wait. Maybe you go find sustenance elsewhere.

The findings are especially meaningful when compared to the ‘happiness’ condition. The positive psychology movement of the 90s was an important one, full of thoughtful research and significant outcomes for students. But as human nature might predict, in certain cases it went too far. Too much “nice” is actually “mean” – too much of a good thing can in fact be a bad thing, as outlined in the research of Oishi, et al and others.

Although gratitude might lead to happiness, it seems that we should be teaching for gratitude over happiness… assuming we hope to encourage honorable behavior. That’s a tricky distinction. DeSteno’s study confirms that this nuance is necessary, especially when it comes to “parsing the influence of positive emotional states.” It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.

Dr. David DeSteno, Northeastern University

A Comprehensive Model

Integrity and Gratitude seem to go hand in hand. Integrity is the behavior we’d like to see in the world, on our teams, and in our classrooms. Gratitude might help us see more of it. That sort of relationship is undoubtedly true for other virtues.

Those virtues influence how we behave. Decisions regarding our behavior are central to how we engage with our environment. How we engage with our environment depends on how we see it. How we see and interpret our environment depends on a complex causal relationship with countless factors that are regularly evolving. So how do we manage this?

Answer: we keep looking. We teach core strategies as best we can (like the building blocks for integrity), we enhance and encourage a culture of gratitude, so that those virtues may shine, and we listen to the feedback we are given.

Step One: Explicitly build the behavior/virtue you expect (integrity)

Step Two: Create a culture wherein virtue may flourish (gratitude)

Step Three: Evaluate your methods and adjust as needed (feedback loop)

Keep an eye on the literature. The research on these subjects is ever-enhancing. And when you seek to understand, don’t be a headline reader. Take your time, do the work. Be patient. After all, that’s what we’d ask our kids to do.

A good place to start? be grateful for your opportunity as an educator.

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