Unethical Amnesia May Explain Why We Forget Our Bad Behavior


Unethical amnesia may explain why people appear to forget their past bad behavior, a new study has found.

People who have committed unethical actions were found to have less vivid memories of their past wrongdoings, thus making them repeat their bad behaviors as if they did not learn from past experiences. This results in repeated dishonesty.

The Issue Of Dishonesty

All around the world, dishonesty is a common phenomenon. It is present in the industries of business, sports, politics, education and medicine, among many others.

What's interesting is that, even if people consider themselves ethical, they still go on to cheat on taxes, relationships and in the workplace every day. Being dishonest results in feelings of guilt and remorse, and thus, it is expected that these people would avoid exhibiting unethical actions, but surprisingly, they don't.

Such occurrences have garnered the interest of scientists to determine once and for all why people seem to have this contradicting behavior.

A group of researchers suspects one potential reason for this dishonesty: unethical amnesia.

Unethical Amnesia

Unethical amnesia refers to the tendency of bad actions being forgotten, and when remembered, become less clear than memories of other kinds of behaviors.

Morality is an essential feature in people's lives. They strive hard to be ethical all the time and to present themselves as moral members of society. This is the reason why those who have committed bad actions are motivated to push aside the details of their unethical behavior so they can go on and think of themselves as moral.

Believing that one is moral but acting in the opposite way leaves people with feelings of discomfort. This then results in them performing strategies to alleviate the bad feelings. For example, unethical people tend to judge others' wrongdoings more harshly so they can vindicate themselves and be convinced that they are the lesser evil.

Investigating Memories

To investigate more on unethical amnesia, the research team performed a total of nine studies that used different methods and populations. They compared how the 2,100 participants remembered their unethical acts, other life events and the unethical acts of other people.

Results show that people really tend to forget their unethical behaviors; it also gave explanations as to why people commit dishonest behavior as time passes.

"These results are particularly important because unethical amnesia can explain why ordinary, good people repeatedly engage in unethical behavior and also how they distance themselves from such behavior over time," the authors write.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America on May 16.

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