A Simple Idea to Protect Core Values and Integrity

Today we are inspired by the remarkable Dan Ariely, author of the must-read for the students of leadership Predictably Irrational.  In his research Prof. Dan found that when one asks individuals to remember a fundamental moral code before taking tests the levels of cheating plummet.  He interpreted this to mean that   “reminders of morality—right at the point where people are making a decision—appear to have an outsize effect on behavior.”

In his studies people were asked to recall the Ten Commandments, sign an honesty pledge or swear on a  Bible (Christians, non-Christians and non-believers alike).  The action had the same effect on everyone.  The key variables seem to be

  1. Reminding people about their core values and
  2. Having them take some sort of action, however minimal, in reference to their core values.

Core values are to police what basic anatomy is to the surgeon.  We know that when officers get into any sort of jackpot it’s usually a case of situational values trumping core values.  Many factors are at play — insufficient training, emotional overload, character defects, personal problems contributing to the overload, etc.  But whatever factors are at work, the problem is the superseding of core values by situational values.

So.  Here’s a thought for police and CJ leaders.  And please, no objections about the unions or “guys will do this or guys won’t do that.”  Use some imagination, humor and goodwill and the few recalcitrants will soon find themselves scurrying to get involved.

Initiate a project inside your organization in which you ask every member to write down his or her core values.  Then do a variety of  activities that refresh each person on his or her core values over time.  Here are some ideas for activities.

Get your IT guys to make some sort of home page for each member.  When he or she log on to enter reports or look up a menu s/he sees her core values statement first.

Post a small number of individuals’ core value statement in the guardroom.  We post stats on how many citation each issues and on available OT and details, so why not core values?

Do a study of which values pop up most frequently across all core values statements and post that in the lobby of the station. Also put the results on a  sign on the front lawn/parking area of the station or HQ.

Publish (cheaply) a booklet — the Core Values Book — that has every members’ core values statement. Ask local high school students to illustrate it.

Make a poster of selected core values statement and distribute it around the city, to schools, libraries, stores, churches, etc.

Ask the mayor or manager/selectpersons to do a town or citywide campaign for all public servants.

Do an annual Core Values Cookout in the parking lot and ask elementary school children to make art projects based on the ideas in the Core Values Book.  Have an art show at the CV Cook-out. (Put up every child’s work and every family will come!  Buy lots of hot dogs.)

And etc.


Here’s the post from Dan Ariely’s blog, Ask Dan, that prompted the thought above.

Dear Dan,

I work for the central organization of a large church, and my job includes dealing with “crooked” priests of one form or another. For now, let’s think only of the embezzlers, of whom there are, sadly, far too many.

This got me thinking about the experiment you and some colleagues ran a few years ago, which showed that levels of cheating plummeted when participants were asked to recall the Ten Commandments right before taking a test. As you wrote, “reminders of morality—right at the point where people are making a decision—appear to have an outsize effect on behavior.”

Your own Ten Commandments experiment suggests that a priest who, as a matter of daily or weekly ritual, recites religious teachings should be highly moral. But I see every day that this isn’t so.

What’s going on here? Can repetition cause “creed fatigue”?


As you pointed out, our experiments show that people became more honest when we got them to think about the Ten Commandments, swear on the Bible (which, interestingly, worked for atheists too) or even just sign their name first on a document. But our experiments were a one-shot exercise, and we don’t have data about what would happen if we repeated them over time.

Even so, I would guess that as such actions (including rituals) become routinized, we would stop thinking about their meanings, and their effect on our morality would drop. This is why I recommend that universities not only set up honor codes but have their students write down their own version of that code before writing each exam and paper—thereby minimizing the chances that these could become thoughtless habits.

Such procedures would be hard to implement in a religious setting, of course, so I’m not sure I have an easy answer for you or your church. Maybe your role should be to try to give the priests more clear-cut rules, reduce their ability to rationalize their actions and eliminate conflicts of interests.

Still, on a more optimistic note: Have you considered the possibility that these rituals are in fact having a positive effect—and that without them, these individuals would behave far worse?


About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at www.sergeantsleadership.org. I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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