Memories of our unethical actions fade before

Although in movies and TV series evil characters tend to be unmistakably evil and selfish, it has long been known that even humans who have committed true atrocities are able to maintain a very ethical sense. they do is not wrong. In a way, it seems that self-image and rule-breaking are relatively independent of each other, so even those most inclined to betray their principles are able to maintain a benevolent image of themselves.

How can this happen? Researchers like Dan Ariely claim that we humans have an incredible ability to deceive ourselves or rather to let our “rational” side only let that part of the information that interests us. Thus, we should not devote any effort to constructing a story biased on why we acted unethically: this story would be constructed automatically, from fully interested data filtering and which our image from oneself will come out well.

Recently, research by psychologists Maryam Kouchaki and Francesca Gino (from Northwestern University and Hardvard University, respectively) provided evidence of similar filtering that affects memory. According to its results, unethical actions are harder for us to remember than other types of events. In other words, we experience what they call “unethical amnesia,” or amnesia of the immoral, and it is possible that this phenomenon is for our own good.

Suspiciously oblivious: ethics are fading

The rationale for unethical amnesia rests, hypothetically, on the state of discomfort generated by knowing that one has acted unethically and violate the vital principles he seeks to follow.

The appearance of this uncomfortable tension, which would generate a kind of dissonance between “what should be” and “what is”, would activate certain defense and adaptation mechanisms made to make the discomfort disappear, and one of the ‘they would tend to be particularly oblivious to events that compromise our sense of ethics.


In one of the tests conducted by Kouchaki and Gino, 279 students had to perform a simple exercise in which they had to try to guess the number that came out by throwing a six-sided die on twenty throws. Each time they guessed the number, they were given a small amount of money as a prize.

Some of these participants were forced to say in advance how much they thought they had to go out, while others could just tell if their prediction came true or not, then they had it very easy to lie and take a sum of money which, according to the rules set, did not correspond to them.

After passing this small test, all participants were asked to complete a questionnaire that included questions about feelings of moral dissonance and self-concept intended to record how good they felt about themselves, if they had anything. ashamed, etc. As expected, in general, people who belonged to the group of participants who had had the opportunity to lie they tended to reflect a greater sense of discomfort in their responses to the questionnaire.

Days later …

And this is where the forgetting of unethical actions appears. Two days after completing the dice test and completing the quiz, those in the participant group who had been allowed to cheat show more difficulty remembering details of the experience.

His memories of the task of rolling the dice were less intense, less clear, and with fewer elements than those of the other volunteers. Maybe something in these people’s brains had acted to get rid of the information about what had happened rather quickly.

Return to the initial situation

In addition to obtaining evidence for this curious mechanism for strategically forgetting annoying information, the two researchers also came to another conclusion: group members who had been allowed to cheat felt good about themselves very quickly.

In fact, two days after rolling the dice, their self-concept and moral dissonance questionnaire scores were no different from those of the other participants.

Is the amnesia of the immoral something useful?

Since in our day-to-day life it is relatively easy for us to repeatedly break certain moral rules, no matter how small, unethical amnesia can protect us from anxiety attacks caused by the fact that we meet again and again. able to achieve certain ideal goals. In this way, making it harder to evoke negative memories about one’s ethics can be a useful and adaptive mechanism.

However, the existence of this phenomenon would entail certain drawbacks, since it can lead us to have very little reason to act on our ethical scale and to skip all the rules opportunistically.

Amnesia towards what is to come

In fact, in another part of the previous research, Kouchaki and Gino did the dice roll test followed by a test in which participants had to solve puzzles with words, earn money with each roll. Participants in the group who had been allowed to cheat on the dice game were also much more likely to cheat on this second test.

This could be a sign that the immoral’s amnesia would not only have consequences for what just happened, but that this could open a window of opportunity for us to act dishonestly again.

There may be certain mental mechanisms that help us maintain a good opinion of ourselves, but they could also help us more easily enter a spiral of ethical transgression.

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