Memories of Unethical Actions Become Obfuscated over Time. Kouchaki, M. and Gino, F. 113(22):6166–6171.
Memories of Unethical Actions Become Obfuscated over Time [link]Paper  doi  abstract   bibtex   
[Significance] We identify a consistent reduction in the clarity and vividness of people's memory of their past unethical actions, which explains why they behave dishonestly repeatedly over time. Across nine studies using diverse sample populations and more than 2,100 participants, we find that, as compared with people who engaged in ethical behavior and those who engaged in positive or negative actions, people who acted unethically are the least likely to remember the details of their actions. That is, people experience unethical amnesia: unethical actions tend to be forgotten and, when remembered, memories of unethical behavior become less clear and vivid over time than memories of other types of behaviors. Our findings advance the science of dishonesty, memory, and decision making. [Abstract] Despite our optimistic belief that we would behave honestly when facing the temptation to act unethically, we often cross ethical boundaries. This paper explores one possibility of why people engage in unethical behavior over time by suggesting that their memory for their past unethical actions is impaired. We propose that, after engaging in unethical behavior, individuals' memories of their actions become more obfuscated over time because of the psychological distress and discomfort such misdeeds cause. In nine studies (n = 2,109), we show that engaging in unethical behavior produces changes in memory so that memories of unethical actions gradually become less clear and vivid than memories of ethical actions or other types of actions that are either positive or negative in valence. We term this memory obfuscation of one's unethical acts over time ” unethical amnesia.” Because of unethical amnesia, people are more likely to act dishonestly repeatedly over time. [Excerpt:Discussion] We encounter moral situations frequently. Indeed, morality is ” a uniquely human characteristic – one that sets us apart from other species”. Because morality is such a fundamental part of human existence, people have a strong incentive to view themselves and be viewed by others as moral individuals. However, when encountering an opportunity to act dishonestly and benefit from it, people often choose to diverge from their moral compass and cheat. Across nine studies using diverse sample populations (undergraduate students and online panels of adults), we examine one possible reason why, despite the discomfort they experience after behaving unethically, people engage in similar ethically questionable behaviors over time. We find evidence that people experience unethical amnesia, forgetting of the details of their unethical actions over time, even when the transgressions are minimal and hypothetical. We document that acting unethically produces changes in memory, such that the memories of unethical actions are less clear and vivid over time than the memories of other type of actions. 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. Our studies contribute to the literature on memory and motivated forgetting in four important ways. [::] First, we examine memories of unethical deeds to understand the extent to which people think about such actions. Prior research has demonstrated that moral disengagement and motivated forgetting of ethical standards are common consequences of dishonesty. The empirical studies on motivated forgetting often focus on the memory of a specific threat-related stimulus rather than on the clarity and vividness of the memory of such incidents. In this paper, we examine the clarity, vividness, and level of details of people's memories of their unethical acts. [...] [::] Second, most studies of emotional memory have examined short-lived emotional reactions to specific stimuli and have not considered the longer-term effects. [...] We thus contribute to the research on memory biases and distortions by demonstrating that one's unethical acts lead to gradual decrements of the memory of the situation and the details associated with it. Specifically, our findings show that at the time of an ethical or unethical event, people's subjective experiences of it do not differ from a memory perspective. Over time, however, people's memory for unethical acts becomes less accessible, vivid, and clear. Presumably this obfuscation occurs because the memory of unethical acts is unwelcome, and thus people are less likely to think about them. [...] [::] Third, knowing that individuals self-enhance and forget memories is not sufficient; we need to know why this forgetting occurs and what implications it has on people's behavior. Our results indicate 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 as a moral individual. This may be an adaptive, defensive behavior, because people are less likely to retrieve memories that threaten their self-concept and induce a negative mood. As a result, because unwanted memories of their dishonest behavior are obfuscated, people are more likely to act unethically repeatedly over time. [::] Fourth, we find that remembering personal experiences is modulated by the relevance of the events to one's self-image. People's self-images are grounded in autobiographical memories. We did not find a difference between the memory of ethical and unethical actions performed by someone else, i.e., in the third-party accounts. Given the importance of morality in person perception, remembering one's unethical actions is distinct from the memory of other unpleasant situations because of morality's critical role in one's self-view. Memories of one's unethical behavior fade faster over time because of the greater motivated forgetting relative to other events.[...] [\n] [...]
@article{kouchakiMemoriesUnethicalActions2016,
  title = {Memories of Unethical Actions Become Obfuscated over Time},
  author = {Kouchaki, Maryam and Gino, Francesca},
  date = {2016-05},
  journaltitle = {Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences},
  volume = {113},
  pages = {6166--6171},
  issn = {1091-6490},
  doi = {10.1073/pnas.1523586113},
  url = {http://mfkp.org/INRMM/article/14054074},
  abstract = {[Significance]

We identify a consistent reduction in the clarity and vividness of people's memory of their past unethical actions, which explains why they behave dishonestly repeatedly over time. Across nine studies using diverse sample populations and more than 2,100 participants, we find that, as compared with people who engaged in ethical behavior and those who engaged in positive or negative actions, people who acted unethically are the least likely to remember the details of their actions. That is, people experience unethical amnesia: unethical actions tend to be forgotten and, when remembered, memories of unethical behavior become less clear and vivid over time than memories of other types of behaviors. Our findings advance the science of dishonesty, memory, and decision making.

[Abstract]

Despite our optimistic belief that we would behave honestly when facing the temptation to act unethically, we often cross ethical boundaries. This paper explores one possibility of why people engage in unethical behavior over time by suggesting that their memory for their past unethical actions is impaired. We propose that, after engaging in unethical behavior, individuals' memories of their actions become more obfuscated over time because of the psychological distress and discomfort such misdeeds cause. In nine studies (n = 2,109), we show that engaging in unethical behavior produces changes in memory so that memories of unethical actions gradually become less clear and vivid than memories of ethical actions or other types of actions that are either positive or negative in valence. We term this memory obfuscation of one's unethical acts over time ” unethical amnesia.” Because of unethical amnesia, people are more likely to act dishonestly repeatedly over time.

[Excerpt:Discussion]

We encounter moral situations frequently. Indeed, morality is ” a uniquely human characteristic -- one that sets us apart from other species”. Because morality is such a fundamental part of human existence, people have a strong incentive to view themselves and be viewed by others as moral individuals. However, when encountering an opportunity to act dishonestly and benefit from it, people often choose to diverge from their moral compass and cheat. Across nine studies using diverse sample populations (undergraduate students and online panels of adults), we examine one possible reason why, despite the discomfort they experience after behaving unethically, people engage in similar ethically questionable behaviors over time. We find evidence that people experience unethical amnesia, forgetting of the details of their unethical actions over time, even when the transgressions are minimal and hypothetical. We document that acting unethically produces changes in memory, such that the memories of unethical actions are less clear and vivid over time than the memories of other type of actions. 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. 

Our studies contribute to the literature on memory and motivated forgetting in four important ways. 

[::] First, we examine memories of unethical deeds to understand the extent to which people think about such actions. Prior research has demonstrated that moral disengagement and motivated forgetting of ethical standards are common consequences of dishonesty. The empirical studies on motivated forgetting often focus on the memory of a specific threat-related stimulus rather than on the clarity and vividness of the memory of such incidents. In this paper, we examine the clarity, vividness, and level of details of people's memories of their unethical acts. [...]

[::] Second, most studies of emotional memory have examined short-lived emotional reactions to specific stimuli and have not considered the longer-term effects. [...] We thus contribute to the research on memory biases and distortions by demonstrating that one's unethical acts lead to gradual decrements of the memory of the situation and the details associated with it. Specifically, our findings show that at the time of an ethical or unethical event, people's subjective experiences of it do not differ from a memory perspective. Over time, however, people's memory for unethical acts becomes less accessible, vivid, and clear. Presumably this obfuscation occurs because the memory of unethical acts is unwelcome, and thus people are less likely to think about them. [...]

[::] Third, knowing that individuals self-enhance and forget memories is not sufficient; we need to know why this forgetting occurs and what implications it has on people's behavior. Our results indicate 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 as a moral individual. This may be an adaptive, defensive behavior, because people are less likely to retrieve memories that threaten their self-concept and induce a negative mood. As a result, because unwanted memories of their dishonest behavior are obfuscated, people are more likely to act unethically repeatedly over time. 

[::] Fourth, we find that remembering personal experiences is modulated by the relevance of the events to one's self-image. People's self-images are grounded in autobiographical memories. We did not find a difference between the memory of ethical and unethical actions performed by someone else, i.e., in the third-party accounts. Given the importance of morality in person perception, remembering one's unethical actions is distinct from the memory of other unpleasant situations because of morality's critical role in one's self-view. Memories of one's unethical behavior fade faster over time because of the greater motivated forgetting relative to other events.[...]

[\textbackslash n] [...]},
  keywords = {*imported-from-citeulike-INRMM,~INRMM-MiD:c-14054074,~to-add-doi-URL,cognitive-biases,cognitive-structure,ethics,memory,psychology},
  number = {22}
}
Downloads: 0