Autobiographies are often unreliable, as we have long suspected and as new research now confirms. According to a Monday NY Times article by Benedict Carey, entitled Why Indiscretions Appear Youthful, not surprisingly, most people actually see themselves as morally righteous, at least in the present. And, if we do perceive a time that our morality was lacking, it was always long ago. The article outlines recent research into recollections of good and bad behavior, concluding that people “date their memories of moral failings about 10 years earlier, on average, than their memories of good deeds.”
In recent years psychologists have exposed the many ways that people subconsciously maintain and manage their moral self-image. They rate themselves as morally superior to the next person; overestimate the likelihood that they will act virtuously in the future, see their good intentions as praiseworthy while dismissing others’ as inconsequential. And they soften their moral principles when doing a truly dirty job, like carrying out orders to exploit uninformed customers. . . .Now, scientists are beginning to learn how memory assists and even amplifies this righteous self-messaging. In piecing together a life story, the mind nudges moral lapses back in time and shunts good deeds forward, these new studies suggest – creating, in effect, a doctored autobiography. . . .
“The main finding is that if I ask you to tell me about a positive moral memory, you’ll tell me something recent,” Dr. Escobedo said. “If I ask you to tell me about bad moral memory, you’re going to give me something from much further in the past.”
[T]o talk about moral lapses at all, people first needed time to reimagine themselves as having evolved– as being a different person from the one who fleeced his customers, lied to her spouse or snatched a few purses over at the senior center. . . .Future selves score the best reviews of all, said David Dunning, a social psychologist at Cornell. “People seem to situate themselves in time differently than they do others,” Dr. Dunning wrote in an email. “Ask students what’s important for gaining an accurate impression of them and they emphasize more their unwritten future potential than they do when asked the same question about another person. We presume that future potential is more rosy than the past is.”