But like most of us, I fall short sometimes, much to my own chagrin. It's inevitable, I suppose; we all stumble, make mistakes, succumb to temptation, indulge in fits of peevishness and anger and envy.
I recall those moments with considerable embarrassment, however. And now two researchers have published research suggesting that we remember fewer of our unethical moments than we believe we do.
Maryam Kouchaki of Northwestern University and Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School collaborated on research that appeared this week in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Entitled, "Memories of Unethical Actions Become Obfuscated Over Time," the gist of the study was as follows:
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.Which is a little disheartening. I've been aware for years that memory is far more plastic and unreliable than we are most times willing to acknowledge; but I've always thought that its malleability was random, and that we were equally likely to forget or modify the memory of anything with equal emotional charge. (It hardly bears mention that highly charged memories are more likely to be recalled than emotionally neutral ones are, regardless of content.).
[image courtesy of photographer Michel Royon and the Wikimedia Commons]
It might be natural for us to forget our misdeeds, but it's hardly constructive. I've often cast a wry eye at the pop-psychology approach to good mental health that involves getting rid of "guilt feelings." You know what? There are times when we should feel guilty. When we hurt someone's feelings or person, lie, cheat, steal, or slander, we should remember those actions with humiliation. Those feelings are an impetus not only to make up for what we've done (insofar as it is possible), but never to repeat it. Without those brakes on our behavior, how much more damage would we do to each other?
So Kouchaki and Gino's study turns out to be a bit of a cautionary tale. We sometimes lie to each other -- but what we humans seem to excel most at doing is lying to ourselves.