‘Unethical Amnesia’ Explains Why People Conveniently Forget Their Awful Behavior

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Photo: Steve Sands

It feels bad to be reminded of unsavory actions — accidentally insulting a colleague, forgetting your sibling’s birthday, acting a fool at your best friend’s wedding. So you conveniently forget about it. The habit’s on display in public life, too: Consider how, after Megyn Kelly told Donald Trump about how he called women “fat pigs,” “dogs,” and “disgusting animals,” the mogul subsequently said that he didn’t “recognize those words whatsoever.”

According to a new study, there’s a name for that: unethical amnesia.

As author Maryam Kouchaki tells Science of Us, she and her co-author Francesca Gino wanted to examine why people repeatedly do bad things. What the organizational psychologists, of Northwestern University and Harvard Business School, respectively, found is that recalling unsavory actions causes “psychological discomfort,” so people have fuzzier memories of the bad things they’ve done. It has to do with the concept of self: Evidently, it’s natural to discard evidence that you’re not an ethically pure person.

To ferret out this cognitive mechanism, the researchers did nine experiments with a total of 2,100 participants.

In two of those experiments, participants were asked to write about ethical or unethical actions from their personal histories. Fitting the hypothesis, unsavory memories were less vivid than the positive ones. And, intriguingly enough, memories of others’ actions didn’t differ in clarity depending on whether they were good or bad.

In another study, participants completed a coin-toss task where they could lie to get more money. Two weeks later, the researchers measured their memory of playing the game and other episodes from that time, like eating dinner. Similarly, the people who cheated in the coin tossing had worse recall than the people who didn’t.

But it’s not just from direct experience. In another experiment, participants were asked to read a story about cheating or not cheating on an exam, from either a first-person or third-person perspective. Again, the participants who read the story about cheating from the first-person perspective had worse recall, and the third-person readers had no difference.

As Kouchaki, an assistant professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg Business School, explains, the amnesia has a protective quality. We hold ourselves to be moral agents in the world, so evidence of wrongdoing creates all sorts of dissonance between our ideas about ourselves and our actual behavior. The unethical amnesia acts like an “adaptive defensive behavior,” helping our egos sidestep unpleasant truths.

It’s a pattern spotted by folk wisdom, Kouchaki notes, recalling a Persian proverb: “A liar is forgetful.”

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