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The phenomenology of remembering our moral transgressions


People tend to believe that they truly are morally good, and yet they commit moral transgressions with surprising frequency in their everyday lives. To explain this phenomenon, some theorists have suggested that people remember their moral transgressions with fewer details, lower vivacity, and less clarity, relative to their morally good deeds and other kinds of past events. These phenomenological differences are thought to help alleviate psychological discomfort and to help people maintain a morally good self-concept. Given these motivations to alleviate discomfort and to maintain a morally good self-concept, we might expect our more egregious moral transgressions, relative to our more minor transgressions, to be remembered less frequently, with fewer details, with lower vivacity, and with a reduced sense of reliving. More severe moral transgressions might also be less central to constructions of personal identity. In contrast to these expectations, our results suggest that participants’ more severe moral transgressions are actually remembered more frequently, more vividly, and with more detail. More severe moral transgressions also tend to be more central to personal identity. We discuss the implications of these results for the motivation to maintain a morally good self-concept and for the functions of autobiographical memory.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2
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  1. 1.

    Note that the total number of participants who began the task in each condition but did not submit the HIT is not available.

  2. 2.

    A memory is recalled voluntarily when the rememberer has an intention to deliberately retrieve it prior to actually retrieving it. In contrast, a memory is recalled involuntarily when it spontaneously emerges in consciousness without any prior intention to retrieve it (Berntsen, 1996, 2010).

  3. 3.

    Of note, after applying a Bonferroni correction for multiple comparisons (i.e., adjusted the threshold of significance to .05/21 = .0024), all statistically significant effects identified in Study 1 remained significant.

  4. 4.

    We thank an anonymous reviewer for this suggestion.

  5. 5.

    Of note, after applying a Bonferroni correction for multiple comparisons (i.e., adjusted the threshold of significance to .05/21 = .0024), all significant effects in Study 2 remained significant, except for one (the vivacity of the memories of transgressions of different moral severity)

  6. 6.

    Of note, after applying a Bonferroni correction for multiple comparisons (i.e., adjusted the threshold of significance to .05/21 = .0024), all significant effects in Study 2 remained significant, except for two (the vivacity of the memories of transgressions of different moral severity and the sense of reliving through the memory).


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Open Practices Statement

The data and materials for the experiments reported here are available upon request to the corresponding author, and none of the experiments were preregistered.


This project was supported by a Duke University Bass Connections grant awarded to MLS and FDB.

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Correspondence to Matthew L. Stanley.

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Huang, S., Stanley, M.L. & De Brigard, F. The phenomenology of remembering our moral transgressions. Mem Cogn (2020). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13421-019-01009-0

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  • Autobiographical memory
  • Moral psychology
  • Identity
  • Self
  • Phenomenology