Why did people in the Bible so often want to kill prophets? Because the prophets threatened their image of themselves as good people by saying they were sinning.
Why do people get so testy about those who have different political views instead of discussing the merits of different ideas coolly and rationally? Because one tends to feel that one's own views rest upon a higher moral ground. Why? Because otherwise a person might be wrong or mistaken, the villain or fool of one's own story. But that cannot be, for we are the heroes in our minds.
Our minds are very supportive in allowing us to maintain the illusion of being heroes. For instance, they muddle our memories of past unethical behavior so that we forget how badly we acted. Scientists call this "unethical amnesia." Here is an excerpt from a recent study on this phenomenon:
We identify a consistent reduction in the clarity and vividness of people’s memory of their past unethical actions, which explains why they behave dishonestly repeatedly over time. Across nine studies using diverse sample populations and more than 2,100 participants, we find that, as compared with people who engaged in ethical behavior and those who engaged in positive or negative actions, people who acted unethically are the least likely to remember the details of their actions. That is, people experience unethical amnesia: unethical actions tend to be forgotten and, when remembered, memories of unethical behavior become less clear and vivid over time than memories of other types of behaviors. Our findings advance the science of dishonesty, memory, and decision making.
AbstractFrom the weighing of one's heart by Anubis to the life review that shows up so frequently in near-death experiences, most beliefs in an afterlife include a time of reckoning for all, a moment when they will see clearly all their deeds, both good and evil, and be judged for them. No unethical amnesia allowed then. But we'll also know the whole story then: the limitations we lived with, the biochemistry issues that made it harder to have empathy or wisdom, etc. I think we will find that we all had some moments of heroism and some of foolishness or evil. I think some of the most heroic moments will be the ones where we accepted the existence of our faults and chose to overcome them rather than pretend their absence.
Despite our optimistic belief that we would behave honestly when facing the temptation to act unethically, we often cross ethical boundaries. This paper explores one possibility of why people engage in unethical behavior over time by suggesting that their memory for their past unethical actions is impaired. We propose that, after engaging in unethical behavior, individuals’ memories of their actions become more obfuscated over time because of the psychological distress and discomfort such misdeeds cause. In nine studies (n = 2,109), we show that engaging in unethical behavior produces changes in memory so that memories of unethical actions gradually become less clear and vivid than memories of ethical actions or other types of actions that are either positive or negative in valence. We term this memory obfuscation of one’s unethical acts over time “unethical amnesia.” Because of unethical amnesia, people are more likely to act dishonestly repeatedly over time.