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by Ben Dean Ph.D.

To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man. - William Shakespeare (Hamlet)

Integrity Defined

The word integrity comes from the Latin integritas, meaning wholeness. 

Peterson and Seligman (2004, p. 250) defined integrity in behavioral terms:

  • A regular pattern of behavior that is consistent with espoused values (i.e., "practicing what you preach"). 
  • Public acknowledgment of moral convictions, even if those convictions are not popular. (Courage may be a prerequisite to integrity.)
  • Treatment of others with care, as demonstrated by helping those in need; sensitivity to the needs of others. (Prior to reading this chapter in the Classification, I had always conceptualized integrity as a personal strength.  However, the authors make a strong case for integrity as a strength that motivates social action.)

To summarize, integrity goes beyond speaking the truth to include taking responsibility for how one thinks and feels and what one does.  It includes the genuine presentation of oneself to others (being sincere) as well as the internal sense that one is a morally coherent being.

The opposites of integrity are clearly negative: deceitfulness and insincerity.  For a humorous illustration of integrity's opposite, recall Holden Caulfield's rants about "phonies" in J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye:

At the end of the first act we went out with all the other jerks for a cigarette. What a deal that was. You never saw so many phonies in all your life, everybody smoking their ears off and talking about the play so that everybody could hear how sharp they were. - J.D. Salinger (Holden Caulfield)

Benefits of Integrity

The "knowing thyself" component of integrity is adaptive because it allows us to modify our behavior so that we are more effective in our lives.  Carl Rogers (1961) defined the "fully functioning human being" as someone who could tune into his or her changing emotional responses, accept this information, and act accordingly. 

Acting with integrity has social benefits.  Research suggests that authentic people are well-liked, and they benefit from social support and the many other positive outcomes associated with enjoying close relationships with others (Hodgins, Koestner, & Duncan, 1996; Robinson, Johnson, & Shields, 1995).  Robinson et al. (1995) found that people who give balanced self-descriptions, acknowledging both strengths and weaknesses, tend to be perceived by others as being authentic.

Not surprisingly, acting with integrity can make leaders more effective.  Busman (1992) found that when educational administrators held themselves accountable for their decisions and led without manipulation, teachers were more likely to trust their decisions and follow their lead.  In the business world, workplace relationships are more effective when managers are comfortable "being who they are" rather than following narrowly defined relationships with their subordinates (Herman, 1971).

Finally, acting with integrity can help you attract and keep your romantic partner.  When individuals are asked to list desired qualities in a romantic partner, honesty almost always is at the top of the list (Steen, 2003).  We can forgive friends, family members, or spouses many things, but it is particularly difficult to forgive them for misrepresenting who they are.

What Institutions in Society Nourish Integrity?

Interventions and institutions that attempt to cultivate integrity are numerous, although only a handful have been empirically evaluated. 

Parents have one of the earliest opportunities to encourage integrity in their children.  Children learn early on the importance of "telling the truth."  A common parenting practice is to teach children that they will be in more trouble for lying about misbehaving (denying what they did or blaming someone else) than for the act itself (Quinn, 1998). 

Of course parents may also unintentionally teach their children that inauthentic behavior can sometimes make life easier (at least in the short-run).  For example, a child might observe parents express their desire to cancel dinner plans with their neighbors and then act delighted to see them when they arrive.  Similarly, a well-meaning parent might tell a child to pretend to like a gift even if he or she does not like it.

Youth development programs that intend to encourage integrity include the Boy Scouts of America, the World Association of Girl Guides and Girls Scouts, the Children's Defense Fund, and Girls Incorporated.  Although youth development programs are associated with many positive outcomes from better grades to better health, no systematic evaluations of the effects of these programs on traits such as honesty or integrity exist.

Formal lessons about integrity do not end in adolescence.  Ethics courses are taught  in medical schools, law schools, business schools, clinical psychology schools, and other professional programs.  Often these programs focus on what not to do (and what sanctions you will face by your licensing board if you do).  Peterson and Seligman (p. 209) suggest that these programs would be more likely to reach their stated goals if they placed a greater focus on what one should do to become an ethical practitioner rather than on what one should not do to avoid being unethical.  (For an example of what such a program might look like, see Handelsman, Knapp, & Gottlieb, 2002.)

Exercises to Encourage Integrity

The following exercises were adapted from a list compiled by Psychologist Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia.

  • Refrain from telling small, white lies to friends (including insincere compliments). If you do tell one, admit it and apologize right away.
  • Monitor yourself and make a list of every time you tell a lie, even if it's a small one.  Try to make your daily list shorter every day.
  • At the end of each day, identify those instances in which you were attempting to impress others or appear to be someone you are not.  Resolve not to do it again.

Thank you for reading this edition of the Authentic Happiness Coaching Newsletter. 


Ben Dean, Ph.D.


Busman, D. (1992, April). The myth of the teacher resister: The influence of authenticity and participation on faculty trust. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco. (ERIC Document Preproduction Service No. ED249268)

Handelsman, M.M., Knapp, S., & Gottlieb, M.C. (2002). Positive ethics. In C.R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.) Handbook of positive psychology (pp 731-744). New York: Oxford University Press.

Herman, S. (1971). Toward a more authentic manager. Training and Development Journal, 25(10), 8-10.

Hodgins, H.S., Koestner, R. & Duncan, N. (1996). On the compatibility of autonomy and relatedness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 227-237.

Quinn, K. (1998). Children and deception. In R. Rogers (Ed.), Clinical assessment of malingering and deception (pp. 105-119). New York: Guilford Press.

Robinson, M.D., Johnson, J.T., & Shields, S.A. (1991). On the advantages of modesty: The benefits of a balanced self-presentation. Communication Research, 22, 575-591

Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a person: A therapist's view of psychotherapy. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Robinson, M.D., Johnson, J.T., & Shields, S.A. (1991). On the advantages of modesty: The benefits of a balanced self-presentation. Communication Research, 22, 575-591.

Steen, T. A. (2002, October).  Sex and virtue: The desirability of character strengths.  Poster presented at The First International Positive Psychology Summit, Washington, DC.