Maryam Kouchaki and Francesca Gino have conducted some interesting research about how we think about dishonest or unethical behavior. In a series of experiments, they examined how we recall our own misdeeds versus the unethical decisions and actions of others. What did they find? First, according to this article from Kellogg Insights, they discovered (not surprisingly) that, "People recall their unethical behaviors with less-than-vivid clarity—increasing the likelihood that they will take similar actions in the future." The scholars describe this phenomenon as "unethical amnesia." They argue that such behavior is problematic because forgetting our own misdeeds makes us more likely to take such actions again. If we recalled that behavior more clearly, it would act as a deterrent. Why do we engage in unethical amnesia? Well, of course, we are employing a defense mechanism. We don't like to consider ourselves in a negative light. Failing to reflect on our own misdeeds, however, may heighten the risk that we engage in such bad behavior again.
What about others' misdeeds? The scholars find that we are much more likely to recall the unethical behavior of others than our own. Here's the experimental result:
So are all memories of unethical behavior hazy? Or are we just fuzzy on our own bad deeds? The researchers tested this question by having people adopt the perspective of someone else. They recruited participants online to read a story describing either ethical or unethical behavior. Some of the stories used a first-person perspective so that the reader assumed the point of view of the main character. The other stories used a third-person perspective.
Four days later, the participants rated their memory of the story. Indeed, the perspective of the narrator—and therefore, presumably, the reader—mattered. Participants who read a story with a third-person perspective remembered it just as clearly whether it was about ethical or unethical behavior. But participants who read a first-person story reported remembering the story about unethical behavior less clearly.