June 2016

Memories of Unethical Behavior Become Less Clear Over Time

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and authored by Maryam Kouchaki of the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, and Francesca Gino of the Harvard Business School, Harvard University, suggests that people experience “unethical amnesia,” i.e., an obfuscation in vividness and clarity of one’s memories of past unethical actions, over time.  They concluded that acting unethically “produces changes in memory” relating to the unethical acts, due to a person’s desire to “maintain a positive self-image as a moral individual.”  Also, as a result, “because unwanted memories of their dishonest behavior are obfuscated, people are more likely to act unethically repeatedly over time.”

There were nine studies.  One study involved 400 participants and focused upon the participants’ memories of past actions; another study had 80 participants and focused on actual cheating and subjective memory; another study had 127 participants and focused on objective memory; the remaining studies had between 222 and 300 participants and focused on the causes of unethical amnesia and the likelihood of greater, subsequent acts of dishonesty as a result of unethical amnesia.

The authors found that despite most people believing “that they are more ethical and fairer than others,” people have a strong desire to maintain a positive self-image and have an “overly positive view of their morality,” such that when people fail to live up to the self-image there is psychological discomfort and dissonance which is alleviated, in part, by self-distancing from the dishonest behavior.  For example, a person might view their own behavior as morally permissible, or might dehumanize a victim of their behavior to render the behavior less morally problematic, or might judge the transgressions of others more harshly.

The studies included some participants given incentive to cheat on the testing for a cash reward; almost one-half did.  The results of memory-testing at the time of the actual cheating were compared through re-testing several days later, and it was discovered that those who cheated could not recall their own dishonest acts with the clarity and vividness of the non-cheaters.  One study asked participants to imagine they cheated instead of actually cheating; other participants were asked to read the sample from a third-person perspective.  Later testing showed results similar to the actual-cheating scenario, leading the researchers to the conclusion that memory of first-person dishonesty, real or hypothetical, led to unethical amnesia.

“After they behave unethically, individuals’ memories of their actions become more obfuscated over time because of the psychological distress and discomfort caused by such misdeeds.  This unethical amnesia and the alleviation of such dissonance over time are followed by more dishonesty subsequently in the future.”

Sources:  Maryam Kouchaki and Francesca Gino, “Memories of unethical actions become obfuscated over time,” pnas.org, PNAS, Vol. 113, No. 22, May 31, 2016:  http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/05/11/1523586113.full.pdf; http://qz.com/685262/scientists-say-theres-such-a-thing-as-ethical-amnesia-and-its-probably-happened-to-you/; http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/05/11/1523586113.

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor