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Why Employees Behave Badly ... Again and Again

Why Employees Behave Badly ... Again and Again
Credit: Pathdoc/Shutterstock

Fuzzy memory could explain why employees repeatedly act unethically, new research finds.

A study from Northwestern University revealed that people don't remember their transgressions with much clarity, which increases the likelihood that the individuals will repeat their misbehavior.

Maryam Kouchaki, one of the study's authors and an assistant professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, referred to this as "unethical amnesia."

"It's a phenomenon that we see over and over in organizations, in everyday life — people repeatedly engaging in unethical behavior," Kouchaki said in a recent interview with Kellogg Insight, the school's online magazine. "You see this element of repeated engagement in a lot of corporate corruption."

Since many people don't like to look at themselves in a negative light, they unconsciously tend to have less-than-vivid memories of the times they act unethically, Kouchaki said. That, in turn, leads people to repeat their poor behavior, because they don't have their own memories to prevent it from reoccurring, she said. [See Related Content: Want to Ward Off an Unethical Boss? Try Religion]

"After they behave unethically, individuals' memories of their actions become more obfuscated over time because of the psychological distress and discomfort caused by such misdeeds," the study's authors wrote. "This unethical amnesia and the alleviation of such dissonance over time are followed by more dishonesty subsequently in the future."

For the research, Kouchaki and co-author Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School, conduced nine different studies that included more than 2,000 participants. In one study, online participants were asked to write detailed reports on one of four scenarios:

  1. Something unethical they had done
  2. Something ethical they had done
  3. A negative event they had experienced
  4. A positive event they had experienced

The participants were also asked to rate the clarity of those memories. People who were asked to write about a time they acted unethically had the poorest recollection of their experiences, the results showed.

The researchers conducted another experiment to examine how time affected what people remembered about their unethical behavior. In this experiment, participants were asked to read a story in which they would imagine themselves as students who did, or did not, cheat on a test.

Some of the participants were asked to rate their memories of the story immediately after completing an unrelated, 30-minute task, while others waited four days before rating their memories of the story they read.

When recalling the events 30 minutes later, the participants who read the story about cheating had similar recollections as those who read the story about not cheating, the results showed. However, four days later, the participants who read the story about cheating were more likely to have a poorer recollection than those who read the other story.

Kouchaki said this is a sign that people limit the retrieval of this type of information and that this leads to amnesia over time.

"If I do something bad right now and you ask me about it in half an hour, you'll see no effect," Kouchaki said. "It takes a little while."

In a third experiment, the researchers tested if all unethical memories are fuzzy, or if this applies only to memories of acts committed by the person recalling them. For this experiment, the study's authors had participants read a story that described ethical or unethical behavior. Some stories had a first-person perspective, intended to get the reader to assume the main character's point of view, while the other stories were written in a third-person perspective.

Four days later, the participants were asked to rate their memories of the stories. People who read the first-person stories rated their memories of the tales less clearly than those who read the stories told in third-person perspective, the results showed. This is a sign that employees are much more likely to clearly remember their co-workers' indiscretions than their own, the researchers said.

In order to prevent such repetition of poor behavior in the workplace, it's critical that employers understand how unethical amnesia works and foster a culture that promotes self-reflection among employees, Kouchaki said.

"This would help to prevent people from blocking the unwanted memories of their past unethical behavior," Kouchaki said. "A habit of self-reflection helps to keep such memories alive and [helps people] to learn from them and to not act unethically repeatedly over time."

The study was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years in media. A 1998 journalism graduate of Indiana University, Chad began his career with Business News Daily in 2011 as a freelance writer. In 2014, he joined the staff full time as a senior writer. Before Business News Daily, Chad spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Chad has also worked on the other side of the media industry, promoting small businesses throughout the United States for two years in a public relations role. His first book, How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business, was published in 2014. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Chicago suburbs.