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How Do We Remember Our Mistakes?

What does the memory of moral transgressions tell us about who we are?

There are things we are not proud of. Things we did that we would like to forget. We all have moral transgressions in our past, some major (like cheating on an exclusive romantic partner we care about), some very minor (like lying about why you skipped a social event). Call these "moral transgressions."

Here is an example of moral transgression: you steal a cab from an old lady at the airport because you’re in a hurry. Not a nice thing to do. When the cab leaves the airport, you probably feel just a little bit dirty, maybe even a pang of regret.

This icky feeling is called cognitive dissonance. And the human mind is very good at getting rid of this icky feeling. In fact, there are at least three mechanisms for reducing cognitive dissonance. The first is that you can somehow convince yourself that you didn’t do anything wrong. Maybe the old lady was not actually in a hurry. And there was another cab arriving, so she didn’t have to wait that long anyway. And you were in a real hurry, you just had no choice. So, no conflict and no dissonance; what you did was entirely reasonable, and you have no reason to feel icky.

If you find it too farfetched to lie to yourself about whether you really stole that cab, the second option is compartmentalization. You just try to put the cab stealing incident out of your mind. You think of something else. Check your phone. Have the cab driver crank up the smooth jazz.

Both of these options amount to being dishonest towards oneself. The first one is a blatant lie, but the second one is also a case of dishonesty because it really is a way of not facing something we should be facing. It is lying by omission.

But there is also a third option: revising our values. You really did steal a cab from an old lady. These are the facts and you need to face them. You may not be as moral a person as you thought you were. You need to think of yourself a little bit differently from the way you used to. It will be a little more difficult to think of yourself as a nice caring person.

To put it simply, if you have a conflict between what you did and what you think of yourself, you have three options: change one, change the other, or segregate them. This is something like the Thanksgiving dinner problem: your aunt is a staunch Republican. Your husband’s uncle is a die-hard Democrat. You could try to convince the auntie to change allegiance. You could do the same with your husband’s uncle. But the simplest and most straightforward option is to just seat them at opposite ends of the table. This would be the equivalent of the second option, fragmentation, which is by far the most common reaction to cognitive dissonance.

The experimental study of moral transgressions tells us quite a lot about how the second option is the dominant one. It would be tempting to think that we don’t have a very vivid memory of our moral transgressions. After all, the psychological immune system is at work 24/7 and if it is bombarded with this blatant evidence that you are not a very generous or upstanding person, it tries to weaken the memory. So the prediction would be that the memory of moral transgression is less vivid than the memory of neutral or positive events of similar magnitude.

Amazingly, this is not what a research group at Duke University recently discovered. In a set of studies, published in the journal Memory & Cognition, participants had to report the vividness and amount of detail of their personal memories involving morally deviant, morally praiseworthy, and neutral events. The surprising result is that people remember their moral transgressions more vividly than other memories, with more emotional overtones (for events of similar magnitude).

This finding is difficult to make sense of unless we assume that the mind is not only fragmented, but the fragments are very forcefully kept apart from the rest of our mind. If the memory traces of moral transgressions were paler and less vivid than other memories, then maybe it would require little mental effort to keep them sealed off. But this is not so. They are more vivid, full of disturbing details. You can’t just tuck them away hoping they will fade. Unless the brain exerts itself to isolate them, they will be back with a bang.

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