A research group has shown that memories of unethical behavior gradually become obfuscated over time, partly because of the distress and discomfort these misdeeds cause


People have a strong incentive to view themselves and be viewed by others as moral individuals. However, when facing the opportunity to cheat, many people act dishonestly. Despite the fact that dishonesty often results in guilt, people engage in unethical actions over and over again.

In a new article recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America a research group conducted nine experiments to investigate how acting unethically affects memory. In the first study, 400 participants were asked to write about their past ethical, unethical, neutral, positive or negative experiences, and their memories were measured with the Memory Characteristics Questionnaire (MCQ). They focused on two aspects of memory: clarity (how vividly one remembers an event), and thoughts and feelings (how one remembers their thoughts and feelings during the event). They found that memory points were lower in cases of unethical experiences rather than in cases of negative ones in both aspects, while memory points did not differ between unethical and negative conditions in regards to their emotions while recalling events.

In the second study, 343 participants were asked to write about their own ethical or unethical, or someone else’s ethical or unethical, actions. Results showed that there was a significant difference between the memories of personal unethical actions and ethical ones in both clarity and thoughts and feelings, while there is no difference in the case of someone else’s ethical or unethical actions.

In the third experiment, 70 participants played a coin-toss task in which they were able to cheat. Two weeks later participants’ memory was measured for the details of the coin-toss task and for another event that occurred on the same day (used as a control). Researchers used MCQ, and the Autobiographical Memory Questionnaire(AMQ). They found that those who cheated in the coin-toss task had worse memories of the task than non-cheaters; however, behavior (cheating or not cheating) did not affect memories of indifferent events from the same time.

In the fourth study 194 participants were randomly assigned to read a story of cheating or not cheating either from a first-person or third-person perspective and four days later they completed the MCQ and AMQ measures. There was a significant difference between recalling unethical and ethical stories in the first-person perspective, while there was no difference in the third-person perspective; so it seems that this “unethical amnesia” only affects memories of personal unethical actions.

In the fifth experiment participants read stories of different behaviors and answered questions about their memory of the story 30 minutes (148 participants) or 4 days (109 participants) later. After 30 minutes, the nature of the act had only a marginal effect, while after 4 days, memory scores were lower for negative than for positive acts, and those who read that they had cheated had a less clear memory. It seems that people’s subjective memory of ethical or unethical actions does not differ at the time when the event occurs. Over time, however, the memory of unethical actions becomes less clear.

In the sixth experiment the objective memory of 88 participants was tested 1 week after they had read a story about either an ethical or unethical event in the first-person perspective. Results showed that objective memory scores were lower for those who read about cheating.

In the seventh study 279 participants played a die-throwing game. One group had the possibility to cheat while the other did not. After the game, participants completed a measure of moral self-concept and a measure of dissonance. Two days later they answered questions about their memory of the die-throwing task, current moral self-concept and their current level of psychological discomfort. Right after the task the likely-cheating group reported higher levels of discomfort and lower scores on the moral self-concept. However, the differences disappeared after two days. In memory scores, there was no difference right after the task, but after two days, the likely-cheating group reported memory impairment.

In the eighth experiment authors used the same die-throwing task first. Three days later, after participants answered questions about their memory of the die-throwing game, they got an opportunity to cheat in another task. Researchers found that participants in the likely-cheating condition recalled the die-throwing task less precisely and they also were more likely to cheat again in the other task (82%) than the non-cheating group (68%). The ninth experiment used the same die-throwing game first, but a different task after three days. This study found that 78% of the participants in the likely-cheating condition cheated at the second game, while only 59% of the ones in the non-cheating condition.

In this paper, the authors examined the clarity, vividness, and level of details of people’s memories of their unethical acts, and found that memories of dishonest behavior fade over time. The study has also shown that unethical amnesia is driven by the desire to lower one’s distress that comes from acting unethically and to maintain a positive self-image. However, researchers did not find a difference between the memory of ethical and unethical acts of someone else. Unethical amnesia may explain why ordinary, good people often repeatedly engage in dishonest behavior and also how they distance themselves from such misdeeds over time.




Written By: Dr. Fanni R. Eros

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