Every office has them: colleagues behaving badly. Whether they always pad their expense reports, call in sick then go to the beach, or just avoid refilling the printer paper, their shenanigans seldom stop.
New research from the Kellogg School’s Maryam Kouchaki may help explain why. Simply put, her findings suggest that people recall their unethical behaviors with less-than-vivid clarity—increasing the likelihood that they will take similar actions in the future.
“It’s a phenomenon that we see over and over in organizations, in everyday life—people repeatedly engaging in unethical behavior,” says Kouchaki, an assistant professor of management and organizations. “This paper is our attempt to answer why.”
None of us like thinking poorly about ourselves, she explains, so as a defense mechanism we tend to have murky memories of when we acted poorly in the past. This faulty recollection, her research shows, can lead to unethical behavior in the future, since we don’t have our own experiences at hand to act as a deterrent. She calls the phenomenon “unethical amnesia.”
Are all memories of unethical behavior hazy? Or are we just fuzzy on our own bad deeds?
However, this phenomenon can be avoided. “A habit of self-reflection helps to keep such memories alive and to learn from them and to not act unethically repeatedly over time,” she says.
Preferring to Forget Unethical Behavior
To demonstrate that people tend to recall unethical behavior with less clarity, Kouchaki and her coauthor, Francesca Gino of Harvard University, conducted nine studies involving more than 2,000 participants.
The first study recruited participants online and asked them to write a detailed account based on one of four prompts: something unethical they had done; something ethical they had done; a negative event they had experienced; or a positive event they had experienced.
They then rated the clarity of their memories on a seven-point scale. Participants who were prompted to write about unethical behavior reported having the poorest recollection of the event they described. But it did not seem to be the case that these events were simply less meaningful than others, as participants in the negative event group reported feeling the same intensity of emotion.
While most of the studies asked participants to self-report the clarity of their memory, Kouchaki says this is a good gauge of their actual memory. The researchers did not make participants aware of their cheating or refer to it when asking about their memory of a task, so participants were unlikely to intentionally misrepresent their memory in order to play down their unethical behavior, Kouchaki says. Indeed, in one experiment participants answered objective questions about a story they had read. Those who had read about unethical behavior scored lower than those who read about ethical behavior.
Another experiment considered the role that time plays in blurring memories of unethical acts.
Participants recruited online read a story in which they imagined themselves as a student who either did or did not cheat on an exam. Participants then completed an unrelated task for 30 minutes. Some rated their memory of the story immediately after completing the task, while the remaining participants waited four days.
Those who rated their memory after just 30 minutes reported recalling the story of their cheating with similar clarity to those who imagined themselves being honest. But those who rated their memory after four days were much more likely to report poorer recall of the story if they had read the version about cheating.
“Basically, people limit the retrieval of this information, and that leads to amnesia over time,” Kouchaki says. “If I do something bad right now and you ask me about it in half an hour, you’ll see no effect. It takes a little while.”
When Memories Threaten Self-Image
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.
Honesty and Unethical Amnesia
So how does all of this impact future unethical behavior?
The researchers recruited participants online and asked them to play a die game that gave them a chance to earn money. Some participants played a version of the game that made cheating both tempting and possible, while others played a version in which it was impossible to cheat.
Two days later, participants were asked to unscramble 10 word jumbles. They self-reported how many they successfully unscrambled, earning $1 for each one. However, one of the jumbles could be unscrambled only to create the highly obscure word “taguan,” making it unlikely that honest participants would report successfully unscrambling it.
Participants who had played the version of the die game in which cheating was likely remembered the game less clearly than their counterparts did. And those with the less clear memory were more likely to have gone on to cheat in the word jumble.
This indicates that unethical amnesia helps people feel better about their past behavior—in this case, cheating at a game—and means they are more likely to repeat that unethical behavior in the future, since they do not feel weighed down by the shame of cheating.
Fighting the Tendency to Forget
Can understanding unethical amnesia help workplaces spot and perhaps prevent deception, corruption, and other immoral activity among workers?
Perhaps. At least, it can help us understand that dishonesty is something that “people are likely to repeatedly engage in over time,” Kouchaki says. “You see this element of repeated engagement in a lot of corporate corruption. I hope that we will come up with interventions to help people stay true to themselves, so they can be the good people they want to be.”
For instance, encouraging self-reflection could help ensure honest behavior among employees.
“This is what I teach in my MBA classes,” she says, “that being a good leader is to take time to reflect, to learn from one’s success and failures, to get to this habit.” This would help to prevent people from blocking the unwanted memories of their past unethical behavior.
“If you aren’t mindful, if you don’t really put energy into becoming a better person by thinking through your lapses and shortcomings, you won’t learn from them,” she says. “Even though as human beings we have the tendency not to learn from our past lapses, we should take control of our actions so that we don’t repeat our mistakes.”
Kouchaki, Maryam, and Francesca Gino. 2016. “Memories of Unethical Actions Become Obfuscated over Time.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 113(22): 6166–6171.
Companies will need to address employees’ needs differently going forward.
A Kellogg professor and pastor explains how to avoid being handcuffed to the habits of yesteryear.
Coworkers can make us crazy. Here’s how to handle tough situations.
Plus: Four questions to consider before becoming a social-impact entrepreneur.
Finding and nurturing high performers isn’t easy, but it pays off.