Selfish people’s minds play tricks on them to swerve around behavioural embarrassment and maintain a positive self-image, according to new research highlighted in a leading business and leadership journal (Fast Company, 29 April 2020).

In a study of the psychological turf where self-awareness and ethical principles meet, a team of Yale scientists recruited more than 3,000 subjects for two live and three online experiments, the concept of which was based around the act of splitting money with anonymous partners.

Across those experiments, the resulting paper states, the team found that people “tend to recall being more generous in the past than they actually were, even when they are incentivised to recall their decisions accurately”. It notes: “Crucially, this ‘motivated misremembering’ effect occurs chiefly for individuals whose choices violate their own fairness standards – irrespective of how high or low those standards are.” (Crockett et al, 29 April 2020)

The paper explains: “Social scientists have often credited our ability to engage in motivated reasoning – that is, we form self-serving beliefs and attitudes to justify immoral acts to ourselves before or after the events unfold. This feat is accomplished in a number of ways.

“For one, people tend to strike a justifiable balance between self-interest and their moral values – for instance, lying just enough to profit financially, but not so much as to harm their moral self-image. In addition, people psychologically distance themselves from their unethical actions – attributing past misdeeds to situational pressures, or having been a ‘different person’ at the time.”

However, it adds: “Another possibility that has received less attention is that our desire to believe we are moral may distort memories of our concrete experiences.”

In a statement, Yale researcher Ryan Carlson said: “Most people strive to behave ethically, but people sometimes fail to uphold their ideals. In such cases, the desire to preserve a moral self-image can be a powerful force and not only motivate us to rationalise our unethical actions, but also ‘revise’ such actions in our memory.” (Yale University via EurekAlert!, 29 April 2020)

What are the implications here for authentic leadership – particularly in the area of accepting responsibility for failings, or instances of poor conduct?

The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “The work of George Herbert Mead is very useful, here. His view was that reality is always constructed in the present, and that people’s interpretations of the past and visions of the future are shaped by the condition of their lives in the here and now. As such, we will revisit events in memory to make a new sense of what has gone before. When people do this, they’re not, strictly speaking, lying or delusional. They’re simply reinterpreting the past based on where they’re at.” (Flaherty and Fine, 2001)

She explains: “If we add in theories of cognitive dissonance – or how uncomfortable we become whenever our behaviours seem to be at odds with our underlying values and attitudes – it absolutely makes sense that we will reconstruct what we’ve done in a positive light, or in a way that suits our values system. Because for many of us, that’s the most comfortable state of being.”

With that in mind, Cooper adds: “At an organisational level, what we must learn from this new research is to call out negative actions as and when they happen, rather than look back later and say, ‘You shouldn’t have done that,’ or ‘That wasn’t a great way to behave.’ If we want to effectively challenge undesirable or unethical behaviour, it’s important to stay in the present with whatever is occurring.

“It’s reflection in action, if you like: the idea that we’re being critical of who we are and what we’re doing while we’re doing it, rather than always making such assessments retrospectively.”

For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on self-awareness


Source refs:

Fast Company, 29 April 2020

Crockett et al, 29 April 2020

Yale University via EurekAlert!, 29 April 2020

Flaherty and Fine, 2001