Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Becoming a Better Person: The Good, the Bad, and the Past

When we think of ourselves as being morally good or morally bad, what goes on in our brains? What moral memories does our mind gather to affirm that we are one or the other, and how are these memories influenced by cognitive biases?

In some ways, we are already aware of some cognitive biases in the way we remember events. For example, we know of an "emotional bias" where emotional memories are remembered more vividly, are typically easier to retrieve and seem more familiar, even when the actual memories are not typically accurate. There also appears to be a"positivity bias" in that positive memories tend to be more vivid then negative ones and are less easily forgotten.

Not much research has been done on moral memories and given that moral memories are often emotional ones (cheating on a partner for instance, or helping someone and receiving their gratitude in turn), similar cognitive biases might exist. In this study, the authors hypothesize that we would remember ourselves doing good deeds more recently, a sort of "temporal bias".

The authors collected 700 autobiographical moral memories and characterized them on 3 categories of good versus bad. They also measured how long ago these events took place and collected data on possible contributing factors like gender, IQ, personality, etc. They then compared the mean age of the morally good memories to the morally bad memories and found that the morally good memories were always more recent.

What could drive these findings? The authors list 3 distinct and fascinating possibilities.

1) People actively reconstruct their memories to render their most recent acts, the acts to which one is most accountable, in a more positive light and relegate bad deeds to the distant past where one can come up with a host of reasons like "I was young" or "I didn't know better". This would be a real "temporal bias".

2) Perhaps bad decisions are more emotionally arousing and hence are remembered better (refer to "emotional bias" above) and their memories, older.

3) There is some real difference in the way people act when they are younger and when they older, so they remember their older self as being more morally good while their younger self as being morally bad. This would be a non-psychological explanation for the phenomena examined above.

While I think the study does indeed have several flaws that makes it hard to disentangle the possibilities, the idea it raises is quite exceptional. The way I interpret it is that, for the most part, we always strive to be better people, but we can never forget the wrongs that we have done. The solution that the brain seems to have evolved, if the authors are correct, is to relegate the ugly deeds to the past, and push the good to the present.

ResearchBlogging.orgEscobedo, J., & Adolphs, R. (2010). Becoming a better person: Temporal remoteness biases autobiographical memories for moral events. Emotion, 10 (4), 511-518 DOI: 10.1037/a0018723

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