Control Yourself! Integrity and Being a Human Being

By Scott Herbst, PhD

bSci21 Contributing Writer

In just about every circle I travel, integrity is a big deal. In behavior analysis, we mostly worry about integrity with respect to our treatment programs. In fact, when Baer, Wolf, and Risley (1987) revisited the seven dimensions of Applied Behavior Analysis, one of the oversights they pointed to was that Applied Behavior Analysts should take data concerning their own behavior. We can’t be certain that the interventions we’ve designed are what’s causing behavior change (or not causing behavior change) unless we’re sure that we’re actually doing what we said we would do. And so we take data on what we’re doing and compare it to what we said we would do so that we know if we’re running our programs with integrity. This is what we train our students, and if you asked someone who had just spent 2-3 years in a Master’s program for ABA and asked them, “What is integrity?” a lot of them would say, “doing what you said you would do.” There was a time in my life where that’s what I would have said “integrity” is. And that’s probably a big part of it.

However, in the world outside of the bubble of behavior analysis, “integrity,” can have different meanings entirely. When I started to think about this article, I got interested in what the rest of the world would say. So I turned to the dictionary, and it turns out that none of the three definitions I found said anything about doing what you said you would do. The first talks about adhering to moral and ethical principles, and being of sound moral character and honest. Granted, that probably has something to do with doing what you said you would do, but only if doing what you said you would do is part of the ethical and moral codes to which the communities in which you participate agree. I’m resisting the urge to go on a political rant here. It probably suffices to say that, whether you’re a liberal or conservative, you can probably think of a group that seems to leave “doing what you said you would do…” out of its moral and ethical codes. Instead of getting into which group that might be, what I simply want to point to is that “doing what you said you would do,” in the common understanding of integrity is, at best, implied. So, officially, that’s not what integrity is (yet).

What was interesting to me were the second and third definitions. The second says, “the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished.” The third is similar in defining integrity as being, “a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition.” There are two things that are particularly interesting to me about those definitions. First, they can apply to just about anything that you might use for anything else. That is, if an object has a use, we can say that, with respect to its intended purpose, it has integrity or it doesn’t. It can apply to cars, bicycles, coffee cups, behavioral programs – anything we might use to get something done.

The other point of interest was that it has nothing to do with morality. That is, there’s no right/wrong or good/bad built into those definitions. It would almost be silly if there were. When we look at a bicycle wheel, and what constitutes it (a rim, spokes, inner-tube, tire) and what would give it integrity (all the spokes are there, it’s been trued, the tire is properly inflated and doesn’t leak too much), it would be odd if we looked at one that met all those conditions next to one that didn’t and said that the one with all of its parts in order was more virtuous, ethical, or moral. If you had a bicycle wheel that lacked integrity, you wouldn’t talk about its lack of principles, you’d set about restoring it to its whole, undiminished state. You’d patch the leaks, inflate the tube, and true the rim. (I, on the other hand, would walk it down to the bike shop and have them do it, but I’m not very handy.)

So for the vast, vast majority of things in the world, integrity has nothing to do with morality and everything to do with whether or not a thing works towards its intended function. Yet, for some reason, when we start talking about human beings and integrity, we bring morality into it. I don’t know why that is, and I don’t think it would be useful to speculate about it here. All I want to assert right now is that I don’t think it’s particularly useful that we do this, and there is value to be had in looking at human beings as just another object with an intended purpose (more on what that might be later).

If we’re going to look at it that way, just as we did with a bicycle tire, we need to look at what constitutes a human being. What are the critical parts that make a human being a human being and not a bicycle tire, a coffee mug, or a behavioral program? I assert that what makes a human being a human being is language. From a behavioral perspective, it is the ability to derive stimulus relations and apply them to arbitrary properties of stimuli. It’s the ability to mutually and combinatorially entail relations and to see those mutually and combinatorially entailed relations transform stimulus functions. Said in a way that most people can understand, it’s the ability to string together words, relate to the words as though they’re the things they represent, and then have those strings of words guide our behavior. Of course, it doesn’t take language to be considered human, but you don’t really get the “beingness” of a human being until that human has language.

And now we’re back to doing what you said you would do. If integrity is the state of being whole and complete, and the condition of being human is the condition of having language, then integrity for a human being is the state of being whole and complete in language. Which takes us right back to where we started, at which point you might be asking, “why did you make me wade through 1000+ words to give me what I would have said in the first place?”

Well, aside from the fact that I find it kind of fun to write about things like this, one thing I really wanted to draw out is that integrity isn’t about morality; it’s about workability. If I could have you take one thing away from this article (and if I myself can take it away, too, that would be fantastic) is that it isn’t right or good to do what you said you would do, and it isn’t wrong or bad to not do what you said you would do. It simply has integrity to do what you said, and it doesn’t have integrity to not do what you said. Integrity, as we distinguished, is a state of workability. It’s about having a life that works.

Of course, that raises the question: what is my life for? The happy answer to that question is: I don’t know. It isn’t for me to say. My life is for that people have jobs they love and that enliven them, where they are present to and appreciated for the difference they make. Why is my life for that? Because I said it’s for that. You can have your life be for whatever you say it’s for. Just remember, that when you do, integrity will matter with respect to your ability to deliver on that or not. Again, not because it’s right, but because it creates a foundation of workability. This is a tough one for people to wrap their heads around. It’s tough for me to wrap my head around. It isn’t always obvious that integrity matters, and it’s still not obvious to me that it has nothing to do with morality. So let’s get into how, in the construction of human being, integrity works.

In the Relational Frame Theory (RFT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) literature, they distinguish three levels of self: self as content, self as process, and self as context (Torneke, 2010). Self as content is the experience of being what our thoughts say we are. It’s usually something along the lines of, “I’m…” and fill in the blank. Honest, phony, independent, needy, smart, stupid, competent, a failure, good, bad, quiet, outgoing, funny, passionate, etc. It’s all the words that we have about ourselves. One of the focuses of ACT is to identify that content as content so that it doesn’t have such a grip over what we will and won’t do. If I have a lot of self-talk saying, “I’m incompetent,” or, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” or, “no one listens to me,” then I may be more unlikely to take action towards things I really care about. In ACT, the goal isn’t to alter the content; the assumption is that your mind is always going to give you something to deal with. Instead, the goal is to bring awareness to it as what it really is: a bunch of words that don’t necessarily have a connection to reality. I can have thoughts about myself while acting completely at odds with what the thoughts would say is true.

Self as process is the experience of self as a fluid set of activity. ACT focuses on training people to accurately identify these processes, to tact anger when one is feeling angry, or sad when feeling sad. This one is least relevant to our current discussion (and the one I least understand) so I’m not going to go into further detail about it.

Self as context is often called the observer self. If you look, you have the experience of being the same person now as you were 5, or 10, or 20 years ago. Yes, you’ve learned things, and your content has changed, but somewhere behind that, there’s a you that has been there the whole time. They call this “context,” because that’s the person – the perspective, really – where all of this content and process takes place. They sometimes call it the transcendent self. When one is firmly grounded in the experience of self as context, thoughts are allowed to come and go, content is recognized as content, process as process, and one experiences a greater freedom to take action towards what he or she says matters.

ACT spends a lot of time focusing on developing a greater sense of self as context, and, as a rule, doesn’t focus on altering content at all. I think that’s generally a pretty good idea, but I don’t think it makes for a very good hard and fast rule. The fact is, when we relate to the content of our minds as real, it has a big say over how the world occurs to us, and how the world occurs to us has everything to do with the actions we take, don’t take, and our experience of life. Looking at content as just that – content – is a very powerful skill. And ACT emphasizes that because a lot of ways people have tried to manage the content either, a) don’t work or, b) make it worse. But what if there were a way to manage at least some of the content? What if you could just get rid of some of the content so that you didn’t even have to recognize it anymore? That would be pretty cool. And that’s why integrity matters.

You see, when you, as a human being, make a promise it isn’t simply words coming out of your mouth. Given the power of language, making a promise creates – in the space of our psychology – an object that we then have to deal with. I say to Dr. Ward, “I’ll get you an article by the end of the month,” and that actually gives me something to deal with by the end of month. If I then don’t deal with it, then it’s still sitting there, taking up space until I do. Then, when the end of the month passes and I haven’t done it, it’s still sitting there, an object in my psychology. The problem is that now, it’s not just a promise, but it’s a broken promise. And, given that it’s my promise, it’s very likely that I’ll start generating content to deal with this object taking up space in my psychology.

And that could go a lot of ways. I could make excuses. “I’m too busy! I’m not a good writer! I can’t work under these conditions!” All of which might make sense, except that I’ve now created a world in which there is more going on than I can handle, I’m not the kind of person who can handle it, and the conditions don’t support me in handling it. Another thing I might do is to make Dr. Ward wrong to justify my broken promise. “Well, he doesn’t do enough to promote me,” or, “he should have reminded me,” or, “he doesn’t give me enough reinforcement for the effort this takes.” All of which, again, makes perfect sense, but I am now living in a world where the content is telling me that my friend and colleague is sort of a jerk.

In between these excuses and justifications, however, I am probably saying things to myself about myself that would explain why I didn’t keep my promise. “I always do this…” or, “I’ll never be the kind of person who gets things done,” or, “I’m such a piece of….” You get it. And now, I’m the kind of always/never/piece of x person. And that’s the content I have to live with. And, none of it has actually addressed the fact that I didn’t do what I said I would do. And as long as that’s sitting out there as a broken promise, throwing all of the excuses, reasons, and justifications at it isn’t going to get rid of it.

Now, having that content, I could become mindful of it, bring awareness to the present moment, and engender a sense of self as context. Or, I could treat my word like a bicycle wheel and restore integrity. Think about it: if you were entered in a bicycle race, and your wheel was missing a spoke and needed a new inner-tube, you probably wouldn’t go to the race intending to be with and accept a tire that wasn’t whole and complete. You might do that if you were only going down to CVS to get a pint of ice cream. But if you wanted to win a race, it would be silly to simply accept that and let the content of your wheel be the content. Why would you try to do that with your word? (I was going to leave that question as rhetorical, but the truth is that you would do that because you’ve confused integrity for morality, which is a pitfall).

So how do you restore integrity to your word? It’s actually pretty simple. First, you acknowledge the broken promise, and do so without excuses. I said I would do X, and I didn’t do it. Then, you acknowledge the impact. Maybe you made people wait, worry, break a promise that they made, etc. And then you deal with the impact. Say whatever you will do to deal with the consequences of you not keeping your promise. Maybe you have to call people and apologize. Maybe you have to stay up late to finish a project. Maybe you have to ask the person what you can do. Maybe there’s nothing you can do and you simply have to acknowledge that. And then you make a new promise, or accept the consequences of being unable to make a new promise. And then you keep your new promise.

A conversation like that might look something like this: I said I would have the article to you yesterday, and I didn’t do that. I know you work really hard to have fresh content, and when writers break promises, you worry that you’ll have that content for your readers. I am going to have this finished today. In the future, I will put time in my calendar to have something written, and I will work on my submission throughout the month so that I know I can get it all done.

This isn’t easy. The content part of your self will, invariably, tell you this is a bad idea. It will want to make excuses and justify. It will say, “it wasn’t my fault,” or “I couldn’t help it.” It will try to find other people at fault or invent circumstances that made it impossible. Your content doesn’t want you to look bad, and will go to great lengths not to do so. The thing is, the content has no interest in you fulfilling on what you say your life is for. It mostly wants to avoid looking bad. Often, how you look has nothing to do with what you say your life is for, and your content forgets that.

A couple more things. If you’re living a life that is making a difference, then integrity is always going out. You’re always bumping up against deadlines, always making promises that depend on others keeping their promises, and always dealing with life’s unexpected circumstances as you try to keep all of your promises. You’re not always going to keep them. Integrity is always going out. I try to be a year-round cyclist. As long as the temperature stays over 15 Fahrenheit and it isn’t snowing, I will ride my bike all winter. A couple of years ago, we had a particularly hard winter in Chicago. One day in December, I rode my bike to work, and when I left it was snowing, so I took the bus home and left it in my office. It stayed there for the next two months. It seemed it was either too cold or too wet to get it back home. Finally, the weather warmed enough, and I was able to ride it home one day. It was in terrible condition! Not only were the tires too flat, but someone sitting there in my office for two months had screwed with the derailleur, and now it didn’t shift properly.

Your life is the same way. Unless you are independently wealthy and are only going to use your life to play video games, you are going to break promises. If you look at your life and say, “I always keep all my promises,” then I assert that there’s more you could be doing with your life. If you find yourself unwilling to commit to saying you’ll do something (maybe you say, “I’ll try,” instead), you might look back at your life and see what promise you broke and haven’t restored. And then get in action around restoring it. It will create new space, I promise.

When I was in graduate school, I had a final review paper due for a class. About a week before it was due, I went out of town for a weekend and brought everything I had with me, which at the time was all on paper. And then I left it all somewhere. All of my articles, all of my notes, everything. I couldn’t get it done in time. I went and talked to the professor, and he was gracious enough to give me an extension. He was so gracious that he actually gave me a grade in the class, with the stipulation that he would go back and change it if I didn’t get the paper in. I didn’t get the paper in. He didn’t change the grade. Time passed, and I hoped he forgot about it. The trouble is, I never did. Part of my life became about avoiding this man. I’d run into him in the office, say a quick, “hello,” not make too much eye contact, and hurry out. If there was a program party, I would find the other end away from him and stay there. And you know what? It was fine. Except that any time he was around, what was there for me was the broken promise and what a jerk I was for never following through.

Finally, after two years of this, I had enough. I knocked on his office door and told him that I needed to clean up. I reminded him of the paper, reminded him that I had never done it, and then told him I would do it. I pointed out that, for two years now, I hadn’t been able to look him in the eye, and that for two years I had given him the burden of him having to hold me accountable and justified myself because he didn’t hold me accountable. And he laughed. And he didn’t ask me to do the paper, and I never did. But our relationship was never the same. This man who I couldn’t be with became a really great mentor and friend. He sat on my comps exam committee, he helped me find jobs, and we started exercising together. When I finally graduated, I had a party. He was travelling and couldn’t make it, but he called me from his vacation to congratulate me. He said, “you know, when I first met you, I didn’t like you.” I laughed; I couldn’t blame him. “But over the years, I really got to know you, and I know who you are and what you’re about, and I love you.” I cried then, and I’m misting up now as I remember this. Without that broken promise in the way, which gave rise to so much icky content, I was free to really get to know this man, and then be myself with him. And that was so worth the risk of looking bad for a minute or two.

So, by all means, get mindful of your content and put it in context. Do present moment awareness, and defusion, and whatever other mindful practices you want to put in. However, as that content arises, I also invite you to look and ask yourself, “where is integrity out?”

Baer, D. M., Wolf, M. M., & Risley, T. R. (1987). Some still current dimensions of applied behavior analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 20, 313-327.

Torneke, N. (2010). Learning RFT: An introduction to relational frame theory and its clinical application. Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications.

Scott Herbst, PhD is the founder and Lead Trainer at SixFlex Training and Consulting.  After six years in academia, he left to pursue his passion of training leaders and managers to create, manage, and communicate in work environments where people are productive, excited, and vital.  As a course designer, he grounds his curricula in cutting edge research in language and thinking as well as decades of research in operant performance.  As a trainer, he is an engaging and powerful speaker who makes learning fun and exciting.   You can visit his company site at, or email at [email protected] for more information.

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