How Can Selfish People Live With Themselves? It Is Down To Memory

How selfish people justify their behaviour to both themselves and others.

How selfish people justify their behaviour to both themselves and others.

Selfish people tend to forget their selfish acts, research finds.

It is a psychological mechanism that helps the selfish maintain a positive view of themselves.

However, only a minority of people are selfish and this bias only applies them.

The majority of people are generous and recall their behaviour accurately.

The conclusions come from a study motivated by the question of how selfish people can live with themselves.

The answer, it emerges, is partly through self-deception.

People who are selfish often justify their selfish behaviour to both themselves and others.

For example, they might justify giving a small tip by saying the service was poor.

However, selfish people also rely on ‘motivated misremembering’ to deny that it even happened.

Dr Molly Crockett, study co-author, said:

“When people behave in ways that fall short of their personal standards, one way they maintain their moral self-image is by misremembering their ethical lapses.”

For the research, five separate experiments that tested generosity were carried out on 3,190 people.

Across the studies, stingier people tended to recall giving more than they actually had.

This was despite being motivated to tell the truth by the offer of financial reward.

In a twist, two of the studies sometimes instructed people to be less generous.

Then, selfish people tended to recall exactly how much they had given.

The reason is that this time they were not morally responsible for the choice, so there was no need to ‘forget’ their selfish behaviour.

Mr Ryan Carlson, the study’s first author, said:

“Most people strive to behave ethically, but people sometimes fail to uphold their ideals.

In such cases, the desire to preserve a moral self-image can be a powerful force and not only motivate us to rationalize our unethical actions, but also ‘revise’ such actions in our memory.”

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications (Carlson et al., 2020).

Author: Jeremy Dean

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, 2013) and several ebooks.

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