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Memory misfires help selfish maintain their self-image

NOMIS researchers Michel Maréchal and Ernst Fehr, who is also a NOMIS board member, have published a study in Nature Communications: Motivated misremembering of selfish decisions.

When people behave selfishly, they have a reliable ally to keep their self-image well-polished — their own memory.

When asked to recall how generous they were in the past, selfish people tend to remember being more benevolent than they actually were, according to a series of experiments by Yale psychologists and economists at University of Zurich published April 29 in the journal Nature Communications.

“When people behave in ways that fall short of their personal standards, one way they maintain their moral self-image is by misremembering their ethical lapses,” said Yale’s Molly Crockett, assistant professor of psychology and senior author of the study.

Psychologists have long been interested in how people balance their self-interest with their desire to be viewed as moral. To justify self-serving behaviors to themselves and others, people engage in a process called motivated reasoning — for example, when leaving a stingy tip, customers might convince themselves that their server didn’t deserve any more.

But a team of researchers led by Crockett and Ryan Carlson, a Ph.D. student at Yale and first author of the study, wanted to explore whether people’s memories of their behaviors help them preserve their moral self-image, perhaps even negating the need to employ motivated reasoning.

Instead of convincing themselves their server didn’t deserve a better tip, for example, a customer might misremember tipping more generously than they actually did.

In their first lab experiment, conducted at the University of Zurich with economists Michel Maréchal and Ernst Fehr, the researchers presented subjects with a pot of money and asked them to decide how much to keep and how much to give to anonymous strangers. After answering some intervening survey questions, participants then were asked to recall how much they had given to the anonymous strangers. Crucially, participants received bonus money if they recalled their decisions accurately.

Continue reading the EurekAlert! release.

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