Cheating causes people to forget their past indiscretions and makes them more likely to cheat in the future, a new study finds.
Psychologists have found that people’s memories are actually less vivid for unethical decisions they have made in the past.
They call the phenomenon ‘unethical amnesia’.
In contrast, people have no problem in remembering the unethical decisions that others have made.
The study’s authors write:
“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.
This unethical amnesia and the alleviation of such dissonance over time are followed by more dishonesty subsequently in the future.”
In one of the studies people took part in a coin-toss game where it was deliberately made easy to cheat.
A couple of weeks later they were asked whether they had cheated and about a meal they had eaten the same night as the test.
The results showed that 43% of people admitted cheating but their memory was very hazy.
In comparison, they had much more vivid memories of what they had eaten.
A further study showed that when people were encouraged to cheat in one game, they were more likely to cheat in the future as well.
However, their minds still seemed to be trying to cover up their own cheating from themselves by burying the memory.
The study’s authors conclude:
“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 behaviour over time.
“Our findings further demonstrate the critical role of moral self-concept as we construct and reconstruct experiences to maintain our moral self-image intact regardless of our behaviour.”
The study was published in the journal PNAS (Kouchaki et al., 2016).
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
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