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Saturday, November 21, 2020

Unethical amnesia responds more to instrumental than to hedonic motives

Galeotti, F, Saucet, C., & Villeval, M. C.
PNAS, October 13, 2020 117 (41) 25423-25428; 
first published September 28, 2020; 


Humans care about morality. Yet, they often engage in actions that contradict their moral self. Unethical amnesia is observed when people do not remember or remember less vividly these actions. This paper explores two reasons why individuals may experience unethical amnesia. Forgetting past unethical behavior may be motivated by purely hedonic or affective reasons, such as the willingness to maintain one’s moral self-image, but also by instrumental or strategic motives, in anticipation of future misbehavior. In a large-scale incentivized online experiment (n = 1,322) using a variant of a mind game, we find that hedonic considerations are not sufficient to motivate the forgetting of past cheating behavior. This is confirmed in a follow-up experiment (n = 1,005) in which recalls are elicited the same day instead of 3 wk apart. However, when unethical amnesia can serve as a justification for a future action, such as deciding on whether to keep undeserved money, motivated forgetting is more likely. Thereby, we show that motivated forgetting occurs as a self-excuse to justify future immoral decisions.


Using large-scale incentivized online experiments, we tested two possible origins of individuals’ forgetting about their past cheating behavior in a mind game. We found that purely hedonic considerations, such as the maintenance of a positive self-image, are not sufficient to motivate unethical amnesia, but the addition of an instrumental value to forgetting triggers such amnesia. Individuals forget their past lies more when amnesia can serve as an excuse not to engage in future morally responsible behavior. These findings shed light on the interplay between dishonesty and memory and suggest further investigations of the cost function of unethical amnesia. A policy implication is that improving ethics requires making unethical amnesia more difficult for individuals.