A study published (paywall) today (May 16) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that when we act unethically, we’re more likely to remember these actions less clearly. Researchers from Northwestern University and Harvard University coined the term “unethical amnesia” to describe this phenomenon, which they believe stems from the fact that memories of ourselves acting in ways we shouldn’t are uncomfortable.
“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,” the authors write in the paper.
To investigate, Maryam Kouchaki, a behavioral research specialist at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and her colleague Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School conducted nine separate studies with over 2,100 participants. Over the course of their work, they found that people remember the times they acted ethically, like playing a game fairly, more clearly than the times they probably cheated.
“We speculated…that people are limiting the retrieval of memories that threaten their moral self-concept and that is the reason we see pervasive ordinary unethical behaviors,” Kouchaki wrote in an email.
Here is the full story.