‘Unethical amnesia’ is making good people do bad things...
Ever wondered how someone could do a bad thing, such as cheat on a partner, and then move on from the event without carrying any guilt?
Well apparently it’s all down to our memories conveniently forgetting the details of our indiscretions, although not the actions entirely. However, we have no problem with remembering the mistakes of others. Ah, nice.
Research in the US led by Maryam Kouchak of Northwestern University and Francesca Gina of Harvard, conducted a series of nine experiments with a diverse sample of more than 2,100 participants.
The activities involved games and writing down memories of good and bad behaviours.
Half of participants admitted they’d cheated in the games, but when questioned about it two weeks later, only 43 percent of participants could remember the details of their cheating. Although they could clearly remember the other activities that didn’t involve them misbehaving.
Researchers discovered that while people can clearly recall ethical behaviours, good deeds and positive memories in general, the details of unethical activities can be harder to recall or simply forgotten completely.
The absence of these memories has been labelled ‘unethical amnesia’, and scientists believe this explains why some people continually make bad decisions, and how this amnesia helps them to maintain a positive self-image and distance themselves from their bad behaviours.
The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and researchers wrote: ‘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.’
This basically means that people who have a good moral code and aren’t typically ‘bad’ can repeat wrong behaviours, such as cheating.
‘These results are particularly important because unethical amnesia can explain why ordinary, good people repeatedly engage in unethical behaviour and also how they distance themselves from such behaviour over time,’ the authors write.
However, we don’t know how forgiving we would be if someone cited ‘unethical amnesia’ as the reason for their bad behaviour.