“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” —George Santayana
If you’ve ever tuned into a Congressional testimony or legal deposition, you’ve likely heard a witness respond to a question with the words “I don’t recall.”
For example, rapper Lil Wayne in a 2012 deposition claimed not to recall pleading guilty to criminal possession of a weapon in 2009; and when asked whether he served several months at Riker’s Island in 2010, he answered, “I don’t know.” Similarly, in a 2007 Senate hearing to investigate his role in the firing of eight federal prosecutors, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales reportedly offered some variant of “I don’t recall” more than 60 times.
“Unethical amnesia is a self-defense mechanism that people use to alleviate the dissonance they experience after they act dishonestly”
It may sound like a disingenuous way to avoid answering hard questions about past misdeeds. But a recent set of studies indicates that people genuinely do tend to forget the details of their own transgressions. In the paper Leaving Our Immoral Deeds in the Past, researchers show that engaging in bad behavior affects the memory such that memories of those unethical actions gradually become less clear than other memories—a phenomenon the authors of the paper call “unethical amnesia.” Moreover, forgetting wrongdoings of the past makes us more likely to misbehave in the future.
“We are social beings, and our basic need for self-worth is affected by moral self-views,” says Francesca Gino, the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, who co-wrote the study with Maryam Kouchaki, an assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Management. “Unethical behavior creates psychological distress and discomfort, and unethical amnesia lowers it.”
Everyday unethical behaviors
Gino and Kouchaki conducted a series of studies to compare people’s memory for their own unethical actions with their memory of other life events, as well as their memory of other people’s misdeeds.
In one study, 400 participants were randomly assigned to write about a personal past experience that fit one of five categories: unethical, ethical, positive, negative, or neutral. The participants mostly wrote about commonplace actions (cheating on an exam or padding an expense report, for example) rather than felonious crimes (like robbing a bank or murdering somebody). Afterward, the researchers measured how well the participants remembered the experiences. The memory scores were lowest among those trying to recall a time they engaged in unethical behavior.
In a follow-up laboratory study, participants played a game in which they could make money by successfully predicting the outcome of a computerized coin toss. They self-reported their results, meaning they had the opportunity to cheat. But unbeknownst to the participants, the researchers were able to record the outcome of each coin toss and thus could tell who lied about the results. Two weeks later the researchers asked the participants to recall the detail of the coin-toss experiment along with the details of what they had eaten for dinner that evening. Those who had cheated had a harder time recalling the details of the experiment than those who hadn’t cheated. However, cheating had no effect on the ability to recall what they had eaten for dinner.
Another study randomly assigned participants to read a story describing either ethical or unethical behavior (the main character either did or didn’t cheat on an exam), and presented the story from either a first-person or third-person perspective. Four days later, the participants reported the extent to which they remembered the details of the story. Participants who had read stories in the first person had a harder time remembering the cheating narrative than the non-cheating narrative. But those who read stories in the third person remembered their stories equally well, regardless of whether the main character cheated.
“These results show that people have a weaker memory of their own unethical rather than ethical experience,” the researchers write. “But when taking a third-person perspective (which is less threatening to their own moral self-image), type of behavior doesn’t impact their memory.”
Does cognitive dissonance lead to unethical amnesia?
Prior research had shown that when people behave badly, they experience cognitive dissonance—their brains are addled by simultaneously believing in doing the right thing and actually doing the wrong thing. So Kouchaki and Gino conducted a set of subsequent studies to find out if this dissonance was what triggered unethical amnesia, and whether unethical amnesia would lead to subsequent dishonesty.
In one study, participants played a die-throwing game in which they could earn real money, depending on how the die was cast. Half the participants had ample opportunity to cheat, while the other half did not. Immediately after the task, all participants filled out a survey that measured their relative level of psychological and moral discomfort. Two days later, they filled out a similar survey, along with a survey asking them to recall the details of the die-throwing game.
Immediately after the game was over, those with the opportunity to cheat reported higher levels of psychological and moral discomfort than those who couldn’t cheat. But two days later, the likely cheaters reported lower levels of psychological discomfort, along with fuzzier memories of the game than the non-cheaters.
“Our results provide evidence that unethical amnesia is a self-defense mechanism that people use to alleviate the dissonance they experience after they act dishonestly and to reduce the distress associated with it,” Gino says.
Unfortunately, unethical amnesia can lead to more bad behavior, as the researchers discovered in a follow-up experiment: Participants played the same die-throwing game as in the previous study, answering questions about their memory of the task two days later. (Again, the likely cheaters had fuzzier memories of the task than the non-cheaters.) Next, participants tried to solve 10 word jumbles, for which they would receive a $1 for every word they unscrambled successfully. As with the coin toss task, participants self-reported their results, which gave them ample opportunity to cheat.
The catch: The third word jumble could only be unscrambled to spell the obscure word “taguan.” The researchers banked on the notion that most people have never heard of a taguan, which, FYI, is a type of East Indian flying squirrel. If participants claimed to have solved the taguan jumble correctly, the researchers confidently marked them as cheaters.
The opportunity to cheat in the die-throwing task increased the likelihood of cheating on the subsequent word jumbles. Eighty-one percent of participants in the “likely-cheating” die-throwing group ended up claiming to have solved “taguan.” But among die throwers who didn’t have the opportunity to cheat, only 68 percent cheated. (The researchers conducted a similar study in which participants had the opportunity to cheat at Boggle, and garnered similar results.)
Lessons for business leaders
So how can business leaders lesson the likelihood that their employees will become repeat cheaters? The researchers suggest that organizations schedule time for workers to reflect on their workdays. (Previous research has shown that taking time out to reflect on work improves job performance in the long run.)
“Our results show that one reason we observe unethical amnesia is that people are more likely to limit the retrieval of such memories, and as such the unwanted memories of their dishonest behavior are obfuscated,” Kouchaki says. “However, a habit of self-reflection helps to keep such memories alive and to learn from them.”
“Unfortunately, though, we all live very busy lives,” Gino adds. “So, not many leaders or organizations provide their employees that helpful time for reflection.”
NOTE TO READERS: In the next step of this research, professors Gino and Kouchaki are looking to discover ways to mitigate unethical amnesia in the workplace in order to prevent repeated misconduct. If you think your organization would benefit from a field experiment on this topic, please write to Francesca Gino directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.