The 7-point science of why we forget our 'dark' past
No one makes an outright call to be "evil." People always think that what they stand for is the right thing, and often, they also think it is the only right thing, which is one big root of the problem. But this shows that we humans value morality – we consider being good as something desirable. No one really generates a checklist made up of lies, cheating, stealing, murder, and mayhem that he or she can tick and brag about later on (although we have been made painfully aware that there are occasional leaders and "commoners" who do). But if we all value doing the right thing, then why do we repeatedly do unethical things?
It has to do with our memories – how we erroneously make them and imperfectly retrieve them.
While religions, judiciaries, and philosophies have been working on their own summaries on why we humans are constantly kept on a cycle of misdeeds, and despite glaring evidence of their effects, science has been doing its own probe into why humans are such "evil" deed repeaters.
What goes awry in our circuitry that we do not learn from our misdeeds, even if they are flagrant ones and have caused distress to ourselves and others? One study that was published 2 years ago in US' Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences chased this human tendency and caught it in not just one, but several "unethical" acts, and the findings were quite disturbing.
The overall design of the study exposed subjects to several kinds of tests that would break open chances for them to cheat, report on how they felt about it, how much they remember about their unethical acts, and finally, how likely they will repeat the misdeed. And if you are rooting for humans, as far as this study went, the results were in favor of the "dark" side. These were the findings, which I summarize in 7 points below:
1. Doing bad things makes us feel emotionally uncomfortable and causes us to feel guilt and shame.
Apparently, we generally are really not immune from shame from our own selves after we have done something wrong. So this means that even if your misdeed is not under threat to be exposed, especially now by social media, you cannot hide from the reproach of your own soul.
2. We remember our misdeeds less clearly than we do the good or neutral things we have done.
If you want to find more evidence of this, just listen to statements of politicians and officials past and present who can declare their "innocence" about horrible things they have done to the country and our people with such neutral faces and with such conviction that they have done nothing wrong. This is also evident in family histories when for instance, older members are surprised as to why their younger members blame them for awful things that they do not remember as much as the great things they have passed on to the next generation.
3. We remember the misdeeds of others more clearly (and with more details!) than we do our own.
This explains why victims of past and present administrations never forget the misdeeds of those who have wronged them. But it also explains why those who have been accused of a wrongdoing would always cite someone else's wrongdoing to be greater, as if it makes him or her less guilty by doing so.
4. Even just pretending to have done a wrong thing makes you remember less of it.
When we read a story of an unethical act in the first person perspective, we seem to identify with the unethical act as if it were our own and remember less details about it compared to when we read a story about a good or neutral act from the third person perspective. This means our own brains are not to be completely trusted on the first run, and that it has some kind of autoprotect system that treats even just a pretend situation to be real and codes it as such. I think this may also be the wiring that is behind great cinematic acting, especially of antagonists, since it can code something simulated as real so that the acting will be real.
5. As time goes by, we remember less details of a misdeed that we read about less clearly than we do good or neutral stories.
If we read, for example, a story of yet another corruption or extrajudicial killing, we all generally remember details of the story right after. But as days pass, when we are tested on how much we remember of those unethical stories, our memories of it progressively fade as compared to memories of good or neutral stories. And as more and more of these happen and plague us, does it mean we remember them even less?
6. If we pretend to be the "evil doer" in a story we're reading, we remember a lot less about the story than if the story was not about a misdeed.
This again shows that when our brains think we ourselves did the evil thing, we forget it lot more than we do good or neutral stories we have pretended to be ours.
7. Those who have done a misdeed and forgotten it will most likely repeat the misdeed.
If your own soul has stopped harassing yourself from a misdeed you did in the form of a memory, then what will keep you from doing it again?
Researchers of the study have called it "unethical amnesia," and I think it is so darn criminally convenient. What is behind "unethical amnesia," scientists think, is that what seems to be the "soul discomfort" that we feel when we do something evil codes our brain to actively forget the misdeed. This explains why the painters of our dark distant and immediate past have clouded memories of their plunders and murders. When they committed those evil, their own souls cringed and willfully sent a missive to their brains to forget what they have done, and eventually, they themselves believed their own innocence. Thus, we have any of them on screen – mass or social media – declaring with straight-faced candor, "I have done nothing wrong," leaving their real victims wondering, at the very least, what planet the perpetrators are on.
But science explains. It does not excuse. This kind of faulty "autoprotect-your-innocence-even-in-face-of-reality-to the-contrary" wiring built in us all is just causing massive ethical amnesia that will destroy us all. It is like the inner life version of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, except that with this, science has been giving us fair warning. – Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.