Research finds that blurred memory can explain why employees repeatedly act unethically, A study by Northwestern University revealed that people do not remember their violations very clearly, which increases the likelihood that individuals will repeat their mistakes.
Maryam Kouchaki, one of the study authors and an assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, called this “unethical amnesia.”
“This is a phenomenon that we see again and again in organizations, in everyday life: people repeatedly engage in unethical behavior,” Kouchaki said in a recent interview with Kellogg Insight, the school’s online magazine. “You see this element of repeated participation in a large number of corporate corruption.”
According to Kouchaki, because many people don’t like seeing themselves in a negative light, they unconsciously tend to have less clear memories of the time when they act without ethics. That, in turn, directs people to repeat their bad behavior, because they don’t have their own memories to prevent it from happening again, he said.
“After they behave unethically, individual memories of their actions are misunderstood by time because of psychological suffering and discomfort caused by such crimes,” the study authors wrote. “This unethical amnesia and the loss of the discrepancy over time is followed by more dishonesty later on.”
For research, Kouchaki and co-author Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School, conducted nine different studies that included more than 2,000 participants. In one study, online participants were asked to write detailed reports in one of four scenarios:
-They have done something unethical.
-They have done something ethical.
-Negative events they have experienced.
-Positive events they have experienced.
Participants were also asked to assess the clarity of the memory. People who are asked to write about the time when they act unethically have the poorest memory of their experience, according to results.
The researchers conducted other experiments to examine how time affects what people remember about their unethical behavior. In this experiment, participants were asked to read a story where they would imagine themselves as students who did or did not cheat on the exam.
Some participants were asked to rate their memories from the story immediately after completing an unrelated 30-minute task, while others waited four days before assessing their memories of the story they read.
Recalling the events 30 minutes later, participants who read the cheating story had the same memories as those who read stories about no cheating, the results showed. However, four days later, participants who read stories about cheating were more likely to have worse memories than those who read other stories.
Kouchaki said that this is a sign that people limit the recovery of this type of information and this causes amnesia from time to time. “If I make a mistake at this time and you ask me about it in half an hour, you will not see any effect,” Kouchaki said. “Take a little time.”
In the third experiment, the researchers examined whether all unethical memories were unclear, or if this only applies to memories of actions taken by people who remember them. For this experiment, the study authors asked participants to read stories that described their ethical or unethical behavior. Some stories have a first-person perspective, which is intended to make the reader consider the point of view of the main character, while other stories are written in the perspective of a third person.
Four days later, participants were asked to rate their memories about the stories. People who read stories in the first person judge their memories about them more clearly than those who read stories told from the perspective of a third person, depending on the outcome. This is a sign that employees are far more likely to remember clearly the carelessness of their coworkers than they are, the researchers said.
According to Kouchaki, to avoid repeating mistakes in the workplace, it is important that employers understand how unethical amnesia works and promotes culture that promotes Eva’s self-reflection. “This will help prevent people from blocking unwanted memories from their unethical behavior in the past “Self-reflection habits help keep those memories alive and [help people] learn from them and not act repeatedly unethically from time to time.