ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2022, Vol. 30 ›› Issue (7): 1604-1611.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2022.01604

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How to cope with the threat to moral self? The perspectives of memory bias in moral contexts

WANG Xiuxin(), SHEN Yifan   

  1. School of Psychology, Qufu Normal University, Qufu 273165, China
  • Received:2021-08-26 Online:2022-07-15 Published:2022-05-17
  • Contact: WANG Xiuxin


People sometimes behave unethically, which may threaten their self-concept of being moral. To cope with the threat to the moral self, people would forget these past unethical actions or related information more easily. Recent research employing autobiographical memory paradigm, game paradigm, take-in paradigm, and self-reference memory paradigm provides evidence for this moral memory bias. Moreover, research further suggests that moral memory bias results from people’s need to cope with the threat to their moral self. That is, people forget their unethical behaviors to maintain a positive moral self.
Notably, the findings on the phenomenon of moral memory bias show some inconsistency. Future research should seek possible moderators to integrate these inconsistent findings, revealing the contextual factors at play or individual differences in people's propensity of moral memory bias. In addition, according to the interpretation of moral self-threat, the moral memory biases only occur under certain conditions. That is, when people commit intentional unethical behavior, they should be able to realize that their behavior violates moral standards, experience moral self-threat, and then exhibit a moral memory bias. However, when the unethical behavior was committed unintentionally, people may not experience moral self-threat, therefore, exhibit no moral memory bias. The severity of the moral transgression may also influence the moral memory bias. Moral memory bias can help people cope well with moral self-threat when they engage in less serious unethical behavior but not serious moral violations, in which case, the moral memory bias may not be sufficient to deal with moral self-threat, and may cease to exist.
There may be a link between moral memory bias and other strategies for coping with moral self-threat. One possibility is that moral memory biases and other strategies are complementary and work together. It is also possible that other strategies are the upstream mechanisms and pave the way for the emergence of moral memory biases. After having committed unethical behaviors, people may lower their moral standards by means of moral disengagement and self-serving justifications, and change their evaluation of the event, which makes it easier to obscure unethical behaviors and show moral memory bias. In addition to responding to moral self-threats, there are other possible motivational explanations for the moral memory bias. Moral memory bias may originate from people's impression management motivation. That is, people may exhibit moral memory bias in order to maintain their moral image in front of others. From a cognitive perspective, moral memory bias could arise from different stages of the memory process. For example, this phenomenon may occur in the encoding stage, that is, people may limit the encoding of unethical events rather than moral events; storage stage, that is, the memory traces may be affected by positive self-schemas, and details of unethical events are forgotten more easily; or the retrieval stage, that is, people may actively suppress the retrieval of unethical events. Future research should provide much more convergent evidence for the phenomenon, examine its underlying neural and cognitive mechanisms, and explore its relationship with other strategies that people use to cope with the threat to their moral self.

Key words: moral self, self-protective motivation, ethical dissonance, motivated forgetting

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