Carlson, R.W., Maréchal, M.A., Oud, B. et al.
Nature Communications 11, 2100 (2020).
People often prioritize their own interests, but also like to see themselves as moral. How do individuals resolve this tension? One way to both pursue personal gain and preserve a moral self-image is to misremember the extent of one’s selfishness. Here, we test this possibility. Across five experiments (N = 3190), we find that people tend to recall being more generous in the past than they actually were, even when they are incentivized to recall their decisions accurately. Crucially, this motivated misremembering effect occurs chiefly for individuals whose choices violate their own fairness standards, irrespective of how high or low those standards are. Moreover, this effect disappears under conditions where people no longer perceive themselves as responsible for their fairness violations. Together, these findings suggest that when people’s actions fall short of their personal standards, they may misremember the extent of their selfishness, thereby potentially warding off threats to their moral self-image.
From the Discussion
Specifically, these findings suggest that those who violate (as opposed to uphold) their personal standards misremember the extent of their selfishness. Moreover, they highlight the key motivational role of perceived responsibility for norm violations—consistent with classic accounts from social psychology, and recent evidence from experimental economics. However, since we focused specifically on those who reported no responsibility, it is also conceivable that other factors might have differed between the participants who felt responsible and those who did not.
We interpret these results as evidence of motivated memory distortion, however, an alternative account would hold that these individuals were aware of their true level of generosity at recall, yet were willing to pay a cost to claim having been more generous. While this account is not inconsistent with prior work, it should be less likely in a context which is anonymous, involves no future interaction with any partners, and requires memories to be verified by an experimenter. Accordingly, we found little to no effect of trait social desirability on peoples’ reported memories. Together, these points suggest that people were actually misremembering their choices, rather than consciously lying about them.
The research is here.