The Panama Papers. The 2008 Global Financial Crisis. Volkswagen’s cheating of emission tests.

Just three of the many major ethical scandals of the last decade directly attributed to the wrongdoings of individuals and corporations who should have been well aware of the potential damage their actions could cause.

When a new one appears, we all respond with outrage, but far fewer are surprised, even when those responsible try to defend their involvement in the face of damning evidence.

So here’s the question: do they really not see what they are doing as wrong, or is something else at play? After all, many of the guilty have reputations as otherwise honest, moral parties.

It’s a question researchers Francesca Gino and Maryam Kouchaki set about answering in a study published in May of 2016. The title – Memories of Unethical Actions Become Obfuscated Over Time – is pretty damning in its own right.

Over the course of nine experiments, Gino and Kouchaki found that, of their 2100 test subjects, those who took part in unethical acts had a harder time recalling their actions than those who made ethical or neutral decisions. They dubbed the phenomenon unethical amnesia.

“Unethical amnesia is driven by the desire to lower one’s distress that comes from acting unethically and to maintain a positive self-image as a moral individual.”

This would imply that unethical amnesia was the result not of a failure to acknowledge a misdeed, but of an individual’s desire to forget the details in order to protect themselves from their true nature. It is not ignorance, but wilful suppression of a recognised wrongdoing. Suddenly, the title’s use of “obfuscated” sounds like an understatement.

Of course, once the first act is repressed, Gino and Kouchaki’s subjects continued to act unethically. After the first time, it only gets easier.

As Gino notes in her report for Harvard Business Review“In two of our studies, for instance, a few days after giving participants an opportunity to cheat and misreport their performance for extra money, we gave them another chance to do so. We found that initial cheating inspired unethical amnesia, which drove further unethical behaviour on the subsequent task”.

The study also showed that while subjects had a harder time recalling their own bad deeds, they could quickly remember the unethical decisions of others. Why? Because it bolsters their positive image of themselves even further.

At this point we return to the three scandals noted at the beginning of the article. Though participants lied to themselves about their involvement in highly unethical practices, the keen eyes of others were not as easily fooled.

Unethical amnesia does not change the results of unethical actions. Whether it’s cheating in a game of cards with friends or hiding income from the tax office in offshore havens, the consequences of being revealed are never worth the temporary gain.

It’s something worth keeping in mind, the next time you or your business face an ethical dilemma.

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