Whose Transgressions Are Easiest to Remember?

In recent studies, people recalled others’ offenses more readily than their own.

Posted Nov 27, 2019

Josep Suria/Shutterstock
Source: Josep Suria/Shutterstock

It’s probably not hard to think of a time when someone wronged you, but how well can you recall the harms you have dealt? Give it a try, if you’d like: Tally the recent instances in which someone insulted you, lied to you, or harmed you in any way. Then make a list of your own violations.

Each person’s scoresheet will probably differ based on how callous or careless they are, or how eagerly they perceive slights by others. Yet recently published studies offer evidence of an imbalance in how people recollect affronts. Harms sustained, the results suggest, may spring to mind more readily than harms inflicted. Particular qualities of our harm-related memories may help explain the gap.

In one of these studies, participants were given hypothetical examples of someone who was a so-called “moral agent,” or the committer of a harmful act, as well as someone who was a “moral patient,” or the sufferer. The terms, derived from an existing theoretical framework, were thought to be less charged than “victim” and “perpetrator” and hence more useful for eliciting honest answers. 

The participants then recalled the number of times within the previous half-year when they had been a “moral agent,” as well as times when they had been a “moral patient,” jotting down a word (such as “cheated”) that they connected with each incident. Overall, they recalled more instances of being harmed (2.7, on average) than causing harm (1.7). 

In subsequent studies, participants were assigned to recall either a single time when they caused harm “physically, emotionally, or mentally” or a time when another individual had caused them harm. Participants remembering a case where they had been harmed rated the memory as being easier to recall than those who thought about causing harm to another. 

What might account for this apparent difference in the ease of remembering our own transgressions versus those of others? The perceived intentionality of harmful acts could help explain it. The victims of past harmful acts rated them as more intentional, on average, than did those who were responsible for causing harm. And there was no evidence of a victim-offender memory discrepancy for accidental acts.

For those who recalled being intentionally harmed, the reported negativity of the experience helped account for the relative ease-of-recall.

“There’s something about feeling that someone is trying to hurt you that makes it feel more negative,” says Chelsea Helion, a psychologist at Temple University and lead author of the studies. Victims’ recall of an episode may feel more fluent than offenders’ do because of that increased emotional intensity.

There are other potential explanations. Though participants noted fewer harms caused than harms experienced, it’s possible that people simply aren’t aware of all of the times they have hurt or offended someone. “We have more information about when we were harmed than when we harmed other people,” Helion says. “Also, one person can harm multiple people,” which could contribute to overall imbalance in reporting. These possibilities, however, don’t explain why a single event might feel easier to recall if one was the person harmed.

Self-serving biases may also be at work, Helion suggests—we might downplay (or play up) the significance of an offense, depending on our role in it. But when the researchers looked for evidence of such bias in their study, they didn’t find it.

The results of the studies “mesh with work in my own lab and lots of other labs,” says Paul Conway, a psychologist at Florida State University. While it may seem intuitive that people would remember others’ misdeeds better than their own, he notes, “sometimes common sense is wrong. People could possibly come up with other theories: Maybe victimizing someone leaves people with negative emotions that are more powerful in their memory formation process. Until the scientific work has been done in a tidy way like in the current paper, one can never be sure.”

The findings Helion and colleagues reported were largely consistent with their hypotheses, though it’s worth noting that the expected difference in recall for memories of harms committed and experienced—which was observed more than once in other studies—was only partially replicated in one of the studies. In that study, the researchers observed a difference with regard to the number of sensory details recalled about an experience, but not ease-of-recall.

“I'm not sure why we didn't observe the effect,” Helion says. “It’s possible that introducing the concept of justifiability [of the harmful act, as we did in that study] may impact the types of memories that are recalled.”