Proud and happy moments in our lives become cherished memories, kept in a relatively fresh state in our brains for the occasional uplifting reminder. But memories of not-so-pleasant events, such as a moment of weakness when we cheated on a math test or smuggled a candy bar out of a store, can become so rough in our brains that we may not be able to remember them clearly. more, 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 discard memories of our own wrongdoings to help avoid dissonance between our actions and moral values. This mental hazing, the researchers in the Procedures of the National Academy of Scienceshelps us maintain a positive moral self-image and avoid suffering.
“Because morality is such a fundamental part of human existence, people have a strong incentive to see themselves and be seen by others as moral individuals,” the authors write. But since lying, cheating, and stealing are common occurrences, the use of unethical amnesia “may explain why ordinary, good people repeatedly engage in unethical behavior and also how they distance themselves from such behavior over time.”
People have other methods of making peace with their transgressions, the authors acknowledge. People can justify their behavior, dehumanize victims of their misdeeds, and otherwise bend moral rules to align their actions with their values. But forgetting about those dirty deeds is perhaps the simplest strategy.
In the nine experiments, the researchers sought 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 influence future behavior.
In the first experiment, researchers asked 400 participants to write about previous unethical, ethical, positive, negative, and neutral experiences, then rate how clearly they remembered the experiences. They found that the memories of unethical acts were less vivid than the memories in any other category. Next, the researchers asked 343 participants to recall not only their own past ethical and unethical behavior, but also that of other people. The participants again had difficulty clearly remembering their own misconduct, but they remembered the ethical and unethical actions of others just as clearly.
In the third experiment, 70 participants played a game where they could easily cheat to win money. The 42 percent of participants who cheated had more vague memories of the game two weeks later compared to their honest counterparts. But those cheaters managed to remember what they ate for dinner the night of the game as well as non-cheats.
Similarly, in the fourth experiment, 194 participants read a story about cheating and were told to put themselves in the cheater’s shoes or read it from a third-person perspective. Those who read it from a first-person perspective had more difficulty remembering the story four days later compared to third-person readers.
Next, the researchers tried to understand how memories of dark attempts change over time. In experiments five (257 participants) and six (88 participants), subjects again read stories with unethical actions in the first person. Thirty minutes after reading it, 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, the participants again played games where they could cheat — either lie about their predictions about a dice roll or how many words they made in word scramble games. In some experiments, the researchers made it easy for participants to cheat, which participants said made them uncomfortable and/or embarrassed. However, these feelings disappeared a few days later, as did some of the memories of the games.
In the final experiment, participants played a series of games. And cheaters in the first game were more likely to forget their cheats and cheat again in the second game than non-cheats.
The data from all the experiments, the authors conclude, “highlight an important consequence of dishonesty: clouding of one’s memory over time because of the psychological distress and discomfort caused by unethical actions.”
Procedures of the National Academy of Sciences2016. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1523586113 (About DOIs).