There may be a psychological reason why we have moral standards, according to a study published on May 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study shows that when we act unethically, we’re more likely to remember this less. This phenomenon has been named “unethical amnesia” and it stems from the fact that memories of ourselves acting unethically are uncomfortable.
The authors of the study write: “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”.
They conducted nine separate studies with over 2,100 participants and they found that people remember the times they acted ethically (like being fair in a game) more clearly than the times they most likely 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”.
And if we think about it, the results do make sense. It’s normal that we don’t like to think of ourselves as immoral beings, and may come up with justifications for our behavior that would suggest the contrary. The authors believe that these results could show why certain acts of dishonesty are so pervasive, acts like riding on public transportation without paying, stealing from the workplace, cheating on taxes, and so on.
However, not every immoral thing we do is so easy to forget, especially when it has lasting consequences. “Strong consequences might reduce unethical amnesia with your rationale” says one of the authors of the study. But simultaneously, emotional pain caused by remembering extremely negative consequences can work even more as a motivation to forget the immoral act.