Unethical Amnesia: When The Brain 'Forgets' Bad Behavior To Preserve Positive Self-Image

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"Unethical amnesia" explains why memories of our wrongdoings fade over time. Pexels, Public Domain

We've all lied or cheated at least once, from faking sick to miraculously winning at Monopoly. Afterwards we feel less than proud of ourselves. Now, when asked to recall the event, do we remember it vividly? Or has our memory grown hazy? According to a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, our subconscious is more likely to allow us to forget instances of bad behavior to preserve our positive self-image, also known as “unethical amnesia.”

“Unethical amnesia is driven by the desire to lower one’s distress that comes from acting unethically and to maintain a positive self-image as a moral individual,” wrote the authors in the paper.

In other words, we limit the retrieval of these memories because we don't like to think of ourselves as immoral people. Therefore, we come up with justifications for our behavior that would suggest the opposite. However, does convenient memory loss give us license to engage in more unethical acts?

Across nine studies using a diverse sample of more than 2,000 participants, Northwestern University's Maryam Kouchaki and Harvard University’s Francesco Gino, authors of the study, sought to observe why people experience unethical amnesia, and whether it increases the likelihood of committing additional unethical acts.

In a preliminary experiment, over 300 adults recruited online were randomly assigned “to write about their own past ethical or unethical actions, or the unethical or ethical behavior of someone else.” Then they filled out two questionnaires designed to determine how clearly they remembered the event, as well as the thoughts and feelings they had while it was occurring. The researchers concluded the participants had less clear memory of their unethical actions than of their ethical actions. Meanwhile, for those recalling someone else's ethical actions, memory clarity did not differ depending on the ethicality of the act.

In another study, 70 university undergraduates participated in a coin-toss game where they had an opportunity to cheat to win more money in a lab. Two weeks later, they returned to the lab and filled out the same memory questionnaires. The researchers did this to compare the detail for the coin-toss game with the meal they ate on the night of the game.

The findings revealed 43 percent of those who cheated to some extent had worse memories of the coin-toss game than the non-cheaters. However, the cheaters' memory of their dinner the night of the game was not affected by their behavior during the session.

So, why was this cheating behavior recalled less clearly?

"[W]hen people want forget a certain event, their memory of the details of the event is more likely to be impaired than when they do not have such a desire or intend to remember the event," wrote Kouchaki and Gino.

Over time, the memory of unethical actions become less clear.

In an additional study of 220 university students, the researchers observed a dice-throwing game to see how accurately the participants were able to recall dishonest behavior. Upon reporting memories of that experience three days later, they completed a word-scramble game that gave them the opportunity to lie about their performance for extra money. Participants in the likely-cheating scenario recalled the die-throwing task less precisely. They were also more likely to cheat on the second game, which was dubbed as an “indirect effect” of their memory loss.

It seems forgetting our transgressions may be the easiest way to escape a dilemma, but it doesn't really force us to change our behavior. Rather, it increases the likelihood of committing additional unethical acts. It's important to remember not all of our indiscretions are easy to forget, especially if there are strong consequences for our actions.

Previous studies have found both good and bad memories are inherently linked to the context in which we experience the memory. fMRI scans reveal in order to intentionally forget past experiences, people change how they think about the context of those memories, and the contextual triggers, such as sights, sounds, smells, where they are, who they’re with, time of day, the quality of light etc., that can elicit these flashbacks.

Unethical amnesia could help explain why good people repeatedly engage in self-destructive behavior, and how they distance themselves from it over time.

Perhaps we should be more vigilant of our behavior to maintain our moral image without being dishonest with ourselves.

Source: Kouchaki M and Gino F. Memories of unethical actions become obfuscated over time. PNAS. 2016. 

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