New research published in Nature Communications indicates that selfish people tend to recall being more generous than they actually were. The findings suggest that memory plays a role in warding off threats to people’s moral self-image.
“Most people firmly believe that they are moral beings, and what’s fascinated many psychologists is that this belief is held even by those of us who tend not to be very moral,” explained study author Ryan Carlson, a PhD student at Yale University.
“A common explanation for this is that these people ‘rationalize’ away their immoral actions, for instance, by shirking responsibility for them. But my collaborators and I wondered whether peoples’ moral self-views could also be preserved through biases in memory — instead of rationalizing their immoral actions, what if sometimes people just misremember them?”
In five experiments, which included 3,190 participants in total, the researchers found evidence that people’s memories of their behaviors help them preserve their moral self-image. The authors of the study call this phenomenon “motivated misremembering.”
In their first lab experiment, the researchers asked the participants to divide a pot of money between themselves and anonymous strangers. After answering some intervening survey questions, participants then were asked to recall how much they had given to the strangers. Participants received bonus money if they recalled their decisions accurately.
Despite the financial incentive, stingier participants tended to recall giving more money than they actually did.
In another pair of experiments conducted in the lab and online, the researchers asked participants what they thought was a fair distribution of money before asking them to divide the pot. The researchers found that only those participants who had given less than what they personally deemed fair recalled being more generous than they actually were.
A final pair of online studies suggested that motivated misremembering only occurred when participants felt responsibility for their actions. When participants were explicitly instructed to give lower amounts, they remembered their giving behavior accurately.
“The main takeaway is that acting in ways that violate our moral standards can shape how we remember those actions. We find that people who behave selfishly tend to misremember their actions in a way that makes them appear more generous than they actually were. And we think this memory bias could help people maintain the belief that they are moral,” Carlson told PsyPost.
“One important point to clarify is that most people behaved in a way that they deemed moral, and remembered their behavior accurately. Only a subset of selfish people showed biased memory errors. Another caveat of this work is that it was conducted strictly with participants in western cultures, namely in the US and Switzerland, so it is unclear whether these findings generalize across cultures,” he added.
“One exciting direction that still needs to be addressed is what factors promote misremembering: in other words, how are memory representations distorted between action and recall to facilitate this effect?”
The study, “Motivated misremembering of selfish decisions“, was authored by Ryan W. Carlson, Michel André Maréchal, Bastiaan Oud, Ernst Fehr, and Molly J. Crockett.