Memory & Cognition

, Volume 47, Issue 3, pp 441–454 | Cite as

Remembering moral and immoral actions in constructing the self

  • Matthew L. StanleyEmail author
  • Paul Henne
  • Felipe De Brigard


Having positive moral traits is central to one’s sense of self, and people generally are motivated to maintain a positive view of the self in the present. But it remains unclear how people foster a positive, morally good view of the self in the present. We suggest that recollecting and reflecting on moral and immoral actions from the personal past jointly help to construct a morally good view of the current self in complementary ways. More specifically, across four studies we investigated the extent to which people believe they have changed over time after recollecting their own moral or immoral behaviors from the personal past. Our results indicate that recollecting past immoral actions is associated with stronger impressions of dissimilarity and change in the sense of self over time than recollecting past moral actions. These effects held for diverse domains of morality (i.e., honesty/dishonesty, helping/harming, fairness/unfairness, and loyalty/disloyalty), and they remained even after accounting for objective, calendar time. Further supporting a motivational explanation, these effects held when people recollected their own past actions but not when they recollected the actions of other people.


Moral psychology Autobiographical memory Temporal self-appraisal theory Identity Self 



This project was supported by Duke University thanks to a Bass Connections grant. This project was also supported by the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.

Compliance with ethical standards

Declaration of conflicting interests

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest with respect to their authorship or the publication of this article.

Supplementary material

13421_2018_880_MOESM1_ESM.docx (43 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 43 kb)


  1. Alicke, M. D., & Sedikides, C. (2009). Self-enhancement and self-protection: What they are and what they do. European Review of Social Psychology, 20, 1-48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bates, D., Maechler, M., Bolker, B., & Walker, S. (2015). Fitting linear mixed-effect models using lme4. Journal of Statistical Software, 67, 1-48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Baumeister, R. F. (1998). The self. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, and G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (4th edn., pp.680-740). New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  4. Blaine, B., & Crocker, J. (1993). Self-esteem and self-serving biases in reactions to positive and negative events: An integrative review. Self-esteem (pp. 55-85). Springer, Boston, MA.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bluck, S. (2003). Autobiographical memory: Exploring its functions in everyday life. Memory, 11(2), 113-123.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Chen, S. Y., Urminsky, O., & Bartels, D. M. (2016). Beliefs about the causal structure of the self-concept determine which changes disrupt personal identity. Psychological Science, 27, 1398-1406.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Conway, M. A. (2005). Memory and the self. Journal of Memory and Language, 53(4), 594-628.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Conway, M. A., Singer, J. A., & Tagini, A. (2004). The self and autobiographical memory: Correspondence and coherence. Social Cognition, 22, 491-529.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. D'Argembeau, A., & Van der Linden, M. (2008). Remembering pride and shame: Self-enhancement and the phenomenology of autobiographical memory. Memory, 16, 538-547.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. De Freitas, J., Sarkissian, H., Newman, G. E., Grossmann, I., De Brigard, F., Luco, A., & Knobe, J. (2018). Consistent belief in a good true self in misanthropes and three interdependent cultures. Cognitive Science, 42, 134-160.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Demiray, B., & Janssen, S. M. (2015). The self-enhancement function of autobiographical memory. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 29, 49-60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Escobedo, J. R., & Adolphs, R. (2010). Becoming a better person: Temporal remoteness biases autobiographical memories for moral events. Emotion, 10, 511-518.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  13. Fivush, R., Habermas, T., Waters, T. E., & Zaman, W. (2011). The making of autobiographical memory: Intersections of culture, narratives and identity. International Journal of Psychology, 46(5), 321-345.Google Scholar
  14. Gebauer, J. E., Broemer, P., Haddock, G., & Von Hecker, U. (2008). Inclusion-exclusion of positive and negative past selves: Mood congruence as information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(2), 470.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Greenwald, A. G. (1980). The totalitarian ego: Fabrication and revision of personal history. American Psychologist, 35(7), 603.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Heiphetz, L., Strohminger, N., & Young, L. L. (2017). The role of moral beliefs, memories, and preferences in representations of identity. Cognitive Science, 41(3), 744-767.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Hofmann, W., Wisneski, D. C., Brandt, M. J., & Skitka, L. J. (2014). Morality in everyday life. Science, 345, 1340-1343.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Kouchaki, M. & Gino, F. (2016). Memories of unethical actions become obfuscated over time. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U S A, 113, 6166-6171.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108(3), 480.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Kunda, Z., Fong, G. T., Sanitioso, R., & Reber, E. (1993). Directional questions direct self-conceptions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 29(1), 63-86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Kunda, Z., & Sanitioso, R. (1989). Motivated changes in the self-concept. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 25(3), 272-285.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Leary, M. R. (2007). Motivational and emotional aspects of the self. Annu. Rev. Psychol., 58, 317-344.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Libby, L. K., & Eibach, R. P. (2002). Looking back in time: Self-concept change affects visual perspective in autobiographical memory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 167-179.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Markus, H., & Wurf, E. (1987). The dynamic self-concept: A social psychological perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 38(1), 299-337.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. McAdams, D. P. (2013). The psychological self as actor, agent, and author. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(3), 272-295.Google Scholar
  26. Molouki, S., & Bartels, D. M. (2017). Personal change and the continuity of the self. Cognitive Psychology, 93, 1-17.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Pasupathi, M., Mansour, E., & Brubaker, J. R. (2007). Developing a life story: Constructing relations between self and experience in autobiographical narratives. Human Development, 50(2-3), 85-110.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Robinson, M. D., & Ryff, C. D. (1999). The role of self-deception in perceptions of past, present, and future happiness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(5), 596-608.Google Scholar
  29. Ross, M. (1989). The relation of implicit theories to the construction of personal histories. Psychological Review, 96, 341-357.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Ross, M., & Wilson, A. E. (2002). It feels like yesterday: Self-esteem, valence of personal past experiences, and judgments of subjective distance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 792-803.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Ryff, C. D. (1991). Possible selves in adulthood and old age: A tale of shifting horizons. Psychology and Aging, 6, 286-295.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Sanitioso, R., Kunda, Z., & Fong, G. T. (1990). Motivated recruitment of autobiographical memories. Journal of Personality and Social psychology, 59(2), 229.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. Sanitioso, R. B., & Wlodarski, R. (2004). In search of information that confirms a desired self-perception: Motivated processing of social feedback and choice of social interactions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(4), 412-422.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. Schacter, D. L. (1999). The seven sins of memory: Insights from psychology and cognitive neuroscience. American Psychologist, 54(3), 182.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Schacter, D. L., Guerin, S. A., & St. Jacques, P. L. (2011). Memory distortion: An adaptive perspective. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15, 467-474.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  36. Sedikides, C. (1993). Assessment, enhancement, and verification determinants of the self-evaluation process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 317-338.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Sedikides, C., & Green, J. D. (2000). On the self-protective nature of inconsistency-negativity management: Using the person memory paradigm to examine self-referent memory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 906.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  38. Shalvi, S., Gino, F., Barkan, R., & Ayal, S. (2015). Self-serving justifications: Doing wrong and feeling moral. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(2), 125-130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Stanley, M. L., Henne, P., Iyengar, V., Sinnott-Armstrong, W., & De Brigard, F. (2017). I’m not the person I used to be: The self and autobiographical memories of immoral actions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146(6), 884.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Stanley, M.L., Yang, B.W., & De Brigard, F., (2018). No evidence for unethical amnesia for imagined actions: A failed replication and extension. Memory and Cognition. 46(5): 787-795.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. Starmans, C., & Bloom, P. (2018). Nothing personal: What psychologists get wrong about identity. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22, 566-568.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. Strohminger, N., Knobe, J., & Newman, G. (2017). The true self: A psychological concept distinct from the self. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(4), 551-560.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  43. Strohminger, N. & Nichols, S. (2014). The essential moral self. Cognition, 1, 159–171.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Strohminger, N., & Nichols, S. (2015). Neurodegeneration and identity. Psychological Science, 26, 1469-1479.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  45. Strube, M. J. (1990). In search of self: Balancing the good and the true. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 16(4), 699-704.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Taylor, S. E., Lerner, J. S., Sherman, D. K., Sage, R. M., & McDowell, N. K. (2003). Are self-enhancing cognitions associated with healthy or unhealthy biological profiles?. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(4), 605.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  47. Trope, Y. (1986). Self-enhancement and self-assessment in achievement behavior. In R. M. Sorrentino & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of motivation and cognition: Foundations of social behavior (pp. 350-378). New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  48. Wilson, A. E., Gunn, G. R., & Ross, M. (2009). The role of subjective time in identity regulation. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23(8), 1164-1178.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Wilson, A. E., & Ross, M. (2000). The frequency of temporal-self and social comparisons in people's personal appraisals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 928-942.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  50. Wilson, A. E., & Ross, M. (2001). From chump to champ: People's appraisals of their earlier and present selves. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 572-584.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  51. Wilson, A. E., & Ross, M. (2003). The identity function of autobiographical memory: Time is on our side. Memory, 11, 137-149.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Matthew L. Stanley
    • 1
    Email author
  • Paul Henne
    • 2
  • Felipe De Brigard
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Center for Cognitive NeuroscienceDuke UniversityDurhamUSA
  2. 2.Department of PhilosophyDuke UniversityDurhamUSA

Personalised recommendations