More tips for avoiding “a very bad decision.”

August 31, 2022

Continuing our two-part series on strategies for strengthening your ethical resolve as shared by Cary Friedman, author of The Superhero Handbook for Cops:

  1. Enlist the aid of a confidant or partner.

Take someone you trust into your confidence, with an agreement to return the favor. Your confidant can then monitor your reactions and call you out any time you stray from the ethical path, and you can do the same for him or her. A partner also can be objective in those crucial moments when we lose objectivity. We need not face ethical decisions alone. Keep in mind that this truly is a very serious undertaking—a sacred task, really, because of what’s at stake—and we must treat it as such.

  1. Be vigilant against the slow, steady, cumulative erosion of your ethical clarity.

Ask yourself today: What steps can I take not only in the future but right now to backtrack along any path of ethical erosion I’ve begun to descend, to return to that intersection where I began to veer, and this time to turn right? What aspect of my cop behavior can I clean up? What can I do to strengthen my commitment to ethical behavior and undo any erosion of my ethical sensitivity?

  1. Don’t squander your willpower.

Ethical behavior is all about consistently making the right choices over a long period. It requires a significant amount of ethical clarity and a lot of willpower. Sometimes, however, we know what’s right but aren’t strong enough to act on what we know, or we default to knee-jerk decision-making or simply refuse to decide, because it’s easier. But as a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association has documented, impulsivity and avoidance in our decision-making can affect us in all sorts of negative ways—from declines in memory and communication to an inability to focus. But we can fight back. For example:

“One way to prevent… [a weary mind from defaulting to unhealthy or unethical shortcuts] is to establish protocols, schedules, and lists so decisions become automatic. This applies to complex tasks… [as well as to] seemingly mundane stuff. The idea is to conserve willpower for important decisions.”

Men’s Health, April 2012

Thus, we need to be mindful of practices that may be sapping our willpower and gumption without our even knowing it and employ steps in advance so as not to fall prey.

  1. So, instead, build your willpower.

At any given time, willpower is like a precious, limited resource (although we possess a lot more of it than we realize), but you can strengthen your mind to increase the willpower you possess.

First, think of willpower as a muscle that can be trained. You build mental and ethical willpower the same way you build physical muscle by exercising it. In other words, you are increasing it even as you make increasingly intense demands on it. Consider, for example, what is actually happening when you begin to add heft to your physical muscles. You employ tendons and sinew in whatever quantity you already possess to perform particular tasks or challenges, and through repetition and the gradual increase in weight or duration or resistance or in some cases distance, you begin to realize additional strength. At first the muscle breaks down, but then as it rebuilds itself it becomes bigger and stronger until you are performing at the limit—and perhaps beyond—of its capabilities. The same is true of willpower. You build it by making increasingly intense demands on your determination.

Then, become conscious of opportunities to increase your willpower—chances to take it to the willpower gym, as it were, and give it a little workout. Choose opportunities to challenge yourself to do some things you don’t much fancy and hold back from something you do. Press yourself into situations of limited duration when you feel you are giving or withholding all you can, performing self-control at your limits, whatever the temptation or threat you choose. As you gain endurance—as your willpower grows—add the equivalent of another five pounds on the barbell—continue increasing the exercise over time by manifesting the proper measure of action or restraint in the face of more and more difficult challenges. Be mindful, however, that as with any exercise your increasing application of willpower may be fatiguing, and you may feel enervated and a need to rest. Such feelings, however, are natural and by no means a sign of weakness. Still, best to remember that it’s never a good idea to make excessive demands on the will in the immediate aftermath of a challenge. Nevertheless, the mental and ethical muscle will heal and later show themselves stronger than before.

Here are a few exercises to start you off, though I encourage you to customize additional ones of your own pick. Pick a small habit to work on, like saying “yes” or “no” instead of “yeah” or “nope.” Or swear off cursing. Give up desserts. Resolve to brush your teeth longer. I know, these examples seem overly simplistic, but you need to start somewhere and starting with something easy really is the best way. In short order they can steel your resolve for much harder tasks.

So, start small and add resistance incrementally—slow and consistent and steady—as time goes on.

  1. Predict the future.

I don’t mean like Nostradamus or your Aunt Ethel’s tea leaves. But combat temptation toward unethical behavior by going long. Project your thinking to the future and anticipate the long-term consequences of the action under consideration. Mentally distance yourself from the present with its promise of immediate pleasure or gain and try to imagine the future consequences a particular action could have on your ultimate goals of career, personal integrity and family pride. The key is to think beyond the moment when the immediate pleasure of an action or inaction looms large and seems so attractive. Ask yourself, “does succumbing to this impulse manifest my mental weakness? What future effect will this have on the things I really value, like my family and my reputation?

In all events, focusing on the steep permanent costs of your action might just save you from pursuing the fleeting enjoyments of a very bad decision.

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