Skip to main content

Memories of Unethical Behavior Fade Over Time

This amnesia helps us restore our positive self-image, and allows us to engage in further cheating.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Peter Tandlund/Flickr)

Think back to a time when you lied or cheated. Can you vividly recall the incident? Or has it grown fuzzy and vague in your mind?

New research finds the latter is more likely. Moreover, it suggests this convenient memory loss gives us license to engage in further unethical acts.

“People experience what we refer to as ‘unethical amnesia,’” according to Northwestern University’s Maryam Kouchaki and Harvard University’s Francesco Gino. “Their memory of their past unethical behavior becomes less clear, less detailed, and less vivid over time.”

As the researchers note, the psychological reason for this is fairly obvious: Most of us think of ourselves as good people, and forgetting our transgressions allows us to maintain that sparkling self-image.

More problematically, it may also increase our likelihood of committing additional unethical actions.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Association of Sciences, Kouchaki and Gino describe nine studies featuring more than 2,000 participants. In a preliminary experiment, 343 American adults recruited online were randomly assigned “to write about their own past ethical or unethical actions, or the unethical or ethical behavior of someone else.”

Most of us think of ourselves as good people, and forgetting our transgressions allows us to maintain that sparkling self-image.

Afterwards, they filled out two questionnaires designed to determine how clearly they remembered the event, as well as the thoughts and feelings they experienced while it was occurring.

“Participants had less clear memory of their unethical actions than of their ethical actions,” the researchers report. “However, for those recalling someone else’s ethical actions, clarity of memory did not differ depending on the ethicality of the act.”

In another study, 70 university undergraduates took part in a coin-toss game “in which they had an opportunity to cheat to win more money.” (The researchers identified which of them cheated, and to what extent.)

Two weeks later, they returned to the lab and filled out those same memory questionnaires. The researchers compared the detail of their recall for both the coin-toss game with that of the meal they ate that same night.

The 43 percent of participants who cheated to some extent “had worse memories of the coin-toss task than did non-cheaters,” the researchers report. “However, participants’ memory of their dinner the night of the first laboratory session was not affected by their behavior during the session.”

Why was cheating behavior recalled less clearly? It’s hard to simultaneously cut ethical corners and hold onto a positive self-image. Forgetting our transgressions may be the easiest way out of that dilemma without actually changing our behavior.

“People’s subjective memory of ethical or unethical actions does not differ at the time when the event,” Kouchaki and Gino write. “Over time, however, the memory of unethical actions becomes less clear.”

The consequences of this fade were documented in an additional study. It featured 220 university students who took part in a dice-throwing game, which was designed to either discourage or encourage cheating.

After reporting their memories of that experience three days later, they completed a word-scramble game, which gave them the opportunity to “misreport their performance for extra money.”

As expected, “participants in the likely-cheating condition recalled the die-throwing task less precisely,” the researchers write. They were also more likely to cheat on the second game — a behavior the researchers identify as an “indirect effect” of their memory loss.

So what we have here is a circular dynamic: We effectively forget about past transgressions, which vastly reduces any feelings of guilt or discomfort, and thereby opens us up to additional dishonesty.

It’s easier to deceive others if you have successfully deceived yourself.