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Friday, November 16, 2018

Motivated misremembering: Selfish decisions are more generous in hindsight

Ryan Carlson, Michel Marechal, Bastiaan Oud, Ernst Fehr, & Molly Crockett
Created on: July 22, 2018 | Last edited: July 22, 2018


People often prioritize their own interests, but also like to see themselves as moral. How do individuals resolve this tension? One way to both maximize self-interest and maintain a moral self-image is to misremember the extent of one’s selfishness. Here, we tested this possibility. Across three experiments, participants decided how to split money with anonymous partners, and were later asked to recall their decisions. Participants systematically recalled being more generous in the past than they actually were, even when they were incentivized to recall accurately. Crucially, this effect was driven by individuals who gave less than what they personally believed was fair, independent of how objectively selfish they were. Our findings suggest that when people’s actions fall short of their own personal standards, they may misremember the extent of their selfishness, thereby warding off negative emotions and threats to their moral self-image.

Significance statement

Fairness is widely endorsed in human societies, but less often practiced. Here we demonstrate how memory distortions may contribute to this discrepancy. Across three experiments (N = 1005), we find that people consistently remember being more generous in the past than they actually were. We show that this effect occurs specifically for individuals whose decisions fell below their own fairness standards, irrespective of how high or low those standards were. These findings suggest that when people perceive their own actions as selfish, they can remember having acted more equitably, thus minimizing guilt and preserving their self-image.

The research is here.