Styx was a bit before my time. But I looked up the lyrics when I woke. A wanted man is caught by the law and is about to die for his crimes. He's far from home, but in that final moment, is reaching out to his mother. Maybe the song was on a recent episode of Supernatural, so was also in my head...because, outside of my bills, no one is looking for me. Though, last night, I was in the bathroom when it sounded like little stones were being bounced off of the window. The moon was almost full; it was very bright out. Even at midnight. It happened twice. I looked twice. But no one was there.
When I looked up the Styx lyrics, another song popped up by Johnny Cash called, "Wanted Man." Johnny was singing about being wanted by women in multiple cities and states, as well as by the law. Sounded like he was having some memory trouble, too. You might think it was because ol' Johnny had himself one too many shots of whisky, but a study published five days ago in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team effort between researchers at Northwestern and Harvard, showed the human tendency for what is now being called "unethical amnesia."
People from every walk of life have treated me rather poorly, then, attempted to rewrite history. That may be part of the reason why I became a writer...so that I might document the truth in the face of things like unethical amnesia, prejudice, inequality, and other social crimes, Like what??? Misogyny and gender-bias, but also, anti-Semitism--and, frankly, being loyal, smart and competent hasn't really helped either. Almost every time a person does the unthinkable, I'll attempt reasonable communication toward a resolution. I mean, negatives only surface to be cleared, right? But, while it only takes one person to cause trouble, it takes two to fix it.
It's natural to want answers, even when they're obvious. The truth is, when someone does something other people would consider heinous, that individual knows it. But they almost never remember their actions accurately. At least, that's what the new study (listed above) proves. Those results are backed up by decades of personal experience on my end.
The study estimated that only in situations where strong consequences were enacted, did participants "remember" when they cheated, lied or did other negative behaviors, like abandonment. But all participants used "unethical amnesia," or what psychologists would call, "selective memory," to justify their actions. It was easy for participants to remember in full detail behaviors that were socially acceptable or perceived as ethical. But when they lied or cheated, the details were not only fuzzy, in some cases, participants claimed not to remember them at all.
The research theorizes that the brain will change its own chemistry to lower bodily distress. Emotional pain caused by acting in a severely negative way (or, counter-intuitive to the wants, desires and feelings of the participant) was speculated as providing even more cause to "forget" unethical behaviors, especially if those behaviors potentially ruined lives. I don't know about you, but that doesn't make me feel any better about the people who have hurt me. And, it's not supposed to.
Whatever the initial undertaking of the study, it does help to explain what is otherwise classified as narcissistic behavior, connected to the "dark triad" in psychology. Study participants claimed to forget negative behavior, or, remembered it as completely different than the way it actually happened. But, that's not an excuse. It's a red flag. A sign of losing one's mind. Imagine what that can do to a person after years? Their brain, not just their memories, will be full of holes.
When you compromise yourself, usually because of financial and/or social vulnerability, a certain reliance on selective memory, dissociation, and, what is now being called "unethical amnesia," is almost necessary. Of course, this is not helpful to the people who are hurt by the unethical behavior. On quite the opposite end of the spectrum, we cannot ever forget when someone has acted unethically, hurting our lives, livelihood, and in some cases, ability to earn. It certainly explains why communications about negative (unethical) behavior can be so...clouded.
We're not talking about little white lies...we're talking about seriously ruthless decisions. Decisions like the following example:
When you pack up everything you own while your partner is 500 miles away and completely unaware (because, in the three days since she left to visit family, all of the phone calls, texts and video chats you shared were only about happy futures with babies, vacations, and "infinite" love), it's not an accident. Or, a "step back." Neither was the intention to disappear by not only deliberately neglecting to share your plans with your partner, but also lulling her into a false sense of security to make a cleaner "getaway," which included ignoring her texts and calls. And, by doing so, conveniently turning your back on not just thousands of dollars worth of financial responsibility--that's bad enough--but also, your first child and her mother. Every decision you made was made with the knowledge that your partner may very well be pregnant (a planned pregnancy with the help of fertility specialists for nearly EIGHT months). Whatever social obligations you had before, the moment you plan to bring life into the world, that life trumps any other social (or legal) obligation. Period.
"Devastating" doesn't even BEGIN to describe what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the situation above. Such a "situation" can definitely be a case where "unethical amnesia" is liberally applied by the offending party. Not that it matters. If someone chooses to do something THAT unethical, they were already well-aware of the potential implications of their decisions prior to enacting them. Which also means, it was not a panic-moment or mistake. In fact, any sign of unethical amnesia suggests deliberation: The unethical amnesiac was (and still is) aware of the unethical aspects of their
decision(s) to such an extent, physical distress can cause debilitating emotional pain. The extremity is so severe that the only way the unethical individual can live with themselves is to literally "forget" what they did.
Would that I could forget insult and injury as easily as unethical amnesiacs forget their offenses....
The big elephant in the room, of course, is that there is no way to determine if participants had really forgotten unethical behavior, or, if a person who had already been proven to be dishonest, was simply lying again in an effort to make themselves look better. My gut says it's the latter. And, my gut is never wrong.
Selective memory works in the same way as the newly coined "unethical amnesia." A person only remembers what they want to after doing something negative. Which is really what this new study points to.
The bottom line: You not only jeopardize important social connections through unethical or negative behavior, you jeopardize your mental health--which is isolating, causing emotional pain and physical distress. Both of which can lead to serious health issues. But, it's not fair that an unethical person gets to forget; unethical decisions don't just hurt them, it directly effects other people. People the unethical decision-makers care about or their memory would not be so selective. What happens to those unfortunate people? The ones who suffer abuse, the guilt of which is relieved for the abuser by "unethical amnesia"? Do they just disappear, like the bad memories of the bad behavior from a "bad" person???
The answer is in things like the recently released statistics for an increase in domestic violence in the States. More than 71,000 women asked for help from women's shelters on any given day during 2015, but nearly 40% were turned away because of lack of funding, most significantly, the loss of Federal funding. Domestic violence is not limited to being slapped around; abandonment is also a form of abuse. So is stalking. It takes years to rebuild a life destroyed by domestic violence, neglect and abuse. Loss of employment, loss of your home, bankruptcy...not to mention the inevitable depression that follows such loss, and including suicidal thoughts, are all the results of negative (unethical) behavior. How can anyone recover from something like abandonment or other abuses when the abuser has conveniently "forgotten" what's really happened??? The short answer is, you don't.
The ability to remember the truth as the truth is imperative to correcting otherwise devastating social errors. Even if those "mistakes" were pre-meditated....
It's small consolation to victims of forgotten negative behavior when an abuser feels so much distress at deceiving you, it causes "unethical amnesia." As an academic, the study makes me question how useful the results might be in connecting ruthless social behavior with childhood abuse and consequential adult mental illness. And, perhaps through questioning how socio-economic vulnerability can lead to ruthless behavior (like lying, cheating, stealing, and drug use), which can then lead to a variety of compromised mental (and physical) health conditions.
As important as all those questions may be, the part of me that has been on the wrong end of heinous acts wishes that, instead of studying why assholes act like assholes, institutions like Harvard and Northwestern might find it more valuable to study the victims of "unethical amnesia." Perhaps to show how unethical behavior can cause severe emotional and physical distress--severe enough to not only lead to things like the loss of a child in an advanced stage of pregnancy, but to actual cancer diagnoses. Now THAT would be a hint more interesting (and useful) than labeling what is already recognized as unethical behavior as "unethical."
Of course, you can't expect a nation of sociopaths to actually hold themselves accountable for their own wrongdoing. All one can expect from a sociopath is an attempt to create excusable packaging for what is otherwise inexcusable. Maybe even do so with a hearty helping of humiliation so as to avoid being questioned. How humiliating? As humiliating as being victimized in the first place but later reading that your liar and cheater believes himself to somehow be a sympathetic, albeit flawed, character who isn't really "bad," he's just drawn that way.
Hitler, had he lived long enough to face the consequences of his unethical (and heinous) decisions, may have said the same thing. Every Nazi who stood trial after World War II certainly did. Something to think about....