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Are we all suffering from 'ethical amnesia' ?


Posted on Saturday, 21 May, 2016 | Comment icon 24 comments

Do we deliberately forget unethical behavior ? Image Credit: CC BY-SA 3.0 Hariadhi
A new study suggests that our brains may deliberately muddle up or forget memories of immoral acts.
The research, which was published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved 2,109 volunteers who were asked to take part in nine experiments.

In one of these, 400 of the volunteers were asked to write about their own past moral or immoral behaviors. The results indicated that the participants were easily able to recall their own ethical actions but had more trouble recalling details of times when they acted in an unethical manner.

Another experiment saw 70 of the volunteers engage in a coin-toss game which gave them the opportunity to easily cheat in order to win money.

When asked about this two weeks later, those participants who had cheated had more difficulty recalling the details of what they had done than those who had opted to play the game fairly.

The researchers found that this trend continued across all nine of the experiments.

"After they behave unethically, individuals’ memories of their actions become more obfuscated over time because of the psychological distress and discomfort caused by such misdeeds," they wrote.

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

Source: Ars Technica | Comments (24)

Tags: Brain, Memory

Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #15 Posted by GreenmansGod on 24 May, 2016, 11:33
The older I get the harder it is to remember things.  It is like, if I am to remember something new something has to go. Might as well be something I would rather forget that I have done.  No long ago one of the my kids brought up something I don't remember doing. I ask if I was drunk at the time, he no it was one of your a**hole days.  I really like how he put that, because it is true, we all have those days.   When you have kids you don't have work at remembering the stupid stuff you do, they will remember it for you.       
Comment icon #16 Posted by ChaosRose on 24 May, 2016, 14:49
I think it would only work on people with an actual conscience. Sociopaths could probably remember everything they did very clearly. 
Comment icon #17 Posted by Katzenking on 25 May, 2016, 7:55
People are different. Some don't care what they say or do and seem to have forgotten it minutes later. I recall almost everything and for too long, this feels like a curse sometimes.  
Comment icon #18 Posted by Frank Merton on 25 May, 2016, 8:01
This is so true.  I think to be both rational and happy, one has to forgive not just everyone else but also oneself.  Even "forgive" is too weak a word.  Overlook it all is better when it comes to others.  When it comes to ourselves, maybe it is good to be a little more strict. 
Comment icon #19 Posted by AustinHinton on 25 May, 2016, 19:47
Sounds like the Veneer theory if you ask me. The Veneer theory is that all humankind is naturally, at our core, nothing more than amoral, vicious animals. And it is to the Church and the School to drill principals and morals into us, least we succumb to our beastal urges. Thus morality is little more than a thin  veneer (layer) atop an animalistic and brutal body. And those who are not "placed on the right path" by the Church and the school will become rapists/murders/killers etc, because that is human nature. The Veneer theory lost steam many years ago (aside from a few holdouts), and I am gl... [More]
Comment icon #20 Posted by Podo on 25 May, 2016, 22:55
Ethics are all subjective anyway, so forgetting "ethical" breaches could be perfectly logical if something perceived as unethical by an observer is not unethical to the perpetrator.
Comment icon #21 Posted by Frank Merton on 26 May, 2016, 3:06
Well, no, it is not the Veneer theory and your assertion is a bit insulting and certainly puts words in my mouth.  If people were really like that they would have no reason to "forget" their ethical lapses. Nevertheless, what we think is right ain't necessarily.  It is a case of one plus one equals twenty.    
Comment icon #22 Posted by Frank Merton on 26 May, 2016, 3:12
I don't think so, but I appreciate your giving me the chance to say why.  It is true there are no ethical absolutes (meaning it is always possible to invent a scenario where one would be morally obliged to break any ethical rule you might normally observe), but thinking ethical people will agree on the exceptions. I think we have to "mindfully" (I borrow a Buddhist term and that is the best translation I have) work out our ethical system.  Not too different from starting from axioms and deriving theorems, the axioms being our general principles and the theorems being decisions in specific situ... [More]
Comment icon #23 Posted by AustinHinton on 26 May, 2016, 3:29
I'm sorry! I didn't mean to be insuling!    But I stand by my word that we don't need a Church to tell us what's right and moral. 
Comment icon #24 Posted by Frank Merton on 26 May, 2016, 3:31
Oh I agree.  The Churches seem, at least in my experience, to leads us the wrong way far too often.


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