Are we all suffering from ‘ethical amnesia’ ? – To reconcile our moral values and cheating ways, our minds actively muddle memories. Proud and happy moments in our lives become cherished memories, kept in relatively crisp condition in our noggins for the occasional uplifting retrieval. But memories of not so pleasant events, such as a moment of weakness when we cheated on a math test or snuck a candy bar from a store, may get roughed up in our brains, perhaps to the point where we can’t clearly recall them anymore, according to a new study.
Collecting data from a series of nine experiments involving 2,109 participants, researchers suggest that our brains actively blur and junk memories of our own misdeeds to help avoid dissonance between our actions and moral values. This mental hazing, the researchers hypothesize in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, helps us maintain a positive moral self-image and sidestep distress.
“Because morality is such a fundamental part of human existence, people have a strong incentive to view themselves and be viewed by others as moral individuals,” the authors write. But with lying, cheating, and stealing being common occurrences, the use of unethical amnesia “can explain why ordinary, good people repeatedly engage in unethical behavior and also how they distance themselves from such behavior over time.”
Humans have other methods to make peace with their transgressions, the authors acknowledge. People can make justifications for their behavior, dehumanize victims of their wrongdoing, and otherwise bend moral rules to make their actions fit with their values. But plumb forgetting those dirty deeds may be the simplest strategy.
In the nine experiments, the researchers set out to compare people’s memories of ethical and unethical behavior and understand how those memories affect people, how well the memories hold up over time, and how they might affect future behavior.
In the first experiment, researchers asked 400 participants to write about past unethical, ethical, positive, negative, and neutral experiences, then rate how clearly they recalled the experiences. They found that the memories of unethical deeds were less vivid than the memories in any other category. Next, the researchers asked 343 participants to recall not just their own past ethical and unethical behavior but those of other people as well. The participants again had trouble clearly recalling their own misconduct, but they recalled with equal clarity the ethical and unethical feats of others.
In the third experiment, 70 participants played a coin-toss game where they could easily cheat to win money. The 42 percent of participants that did cheat had fuzzier memories of the game two weeks later compared with their honest counterparts. But those cheaters managed to have equally good recall of what they ate for dinner the night of the game as non-cheaters.
Similarly, in the fourth experiment, 194 participants read a narrative about cheating and were told to either put themselves in the shoes of the cheater or read it from a third-person perspective. Those who read it with a first-person perspective had more trouble remembering the story four days later compared to the third-person readers.
Next, the researchers aimed to understand how memories of dark endeavors change over time. In experiments five (257 participants) and six (88 participants), subjects again read narratives with unethical actions in first-person. Thirty minutes after reading, their memories of the story were fine, but the researchers found that their memories had faded four days later and a week later, respectively.
In the last three experiments, participants again played games where they could cheat—either lying about their predictions about a die toss or how many words they made in word scramble games. In some of the experiments, the researchers made it easy for participants to cheat, which the participants reported made them feel uncomfortable and/or ashamed. However, these feelings vanished a few days later, as did some of the recollections of the games.
In the last experiment, participants played a sequence of games. And cheaters in the first game were more likely to forget their cheating and cheat again in the second game than non-cheaters.
The data from all the experiments, the authors conclude, “highlight an important consequence of dishonesty: obfuscation of one’s memory over time because of the psychological distress and discomfort created by unethical actions.”