We're All Lying To Ourselves About Our Own Bad Habits, Says Science, Because Our Brains Make Hypocrites Of Us All
In case you were hoping to restore your faith humanity, I have some unfortunate news: turns out pretty much all humans are hardwired to be hypocrites. According to a new study, everyone lies to themselves about their bad behaviors, allowing us all to still think of ourselves as good people, even when we don't behave that way. This contrasts, of course, with the way we remember the bad things other people do. I mean what I said: We're all lying to ourselves all the time. Our brains are apparently designed to make us hypocrites, and that's really weird.
Over the course of several different experiments, researchers found that people tend to exhibit what they dub "unethical amnesia." They found that participants who were did something unethical or otherwise dishonest during the experiment were less able to recall details — even details unrelated to their transgressions — than people who behaved ethically. In other words, when people don't give you details about their own wrongdoing, it's not just about being evasive; it's also about the way our brains process things.
"Because people hold an overly positive view of their morality but consistently fail to live up to this standard, they experience psychological discomfort after behaving dishonestly and engage in various strategies to alleviate this dissonance and reduce their distress," the study authors write. Sometimes these strategies involve trying to rationalize their behavior or to distance themselves from it. In a bizarre twist, sometimes people also become even harsher in judging other people who engage in this same behavior, thereby allowing the person to still think of themselves as moral and upright.
But although researchers have been aware of a lot of these coping mechanisms for a while now, it seems the brain goes even farther than making us judge-y and eager to rationalize our own bad behavior. Indeed, we actually stop ourselves from properly encoding memories of our own transgressions. In other words, "unethical amnesia."
As researchers point out, this might help explain why people often engage in the same behavior over and over, even when they regret it or sincerely wish to change. As a defense mechanism, unethical amnesia protects us by helping us avoid psychological distress and allowing us to maintain a positive self-image; but on the flip side, not having vivid memories of your past unethical actions makes you more likely to repeat them.
Basically, we're programmed to not pay attention to our own faults — even as we're also hardwired to focus on other people's. In other words, the sad truth is that pretty much everyone on Earth is something of a hypocrite — and yes, this includes you, too. And if you think otherwise, well, it's probably the unethical amnesia talking.