This is the weird reason selfish people still feel good about themselves

We’ve all dealt with a particularly selfish person, whether it be at the store or in the office, and wondered “how does he or she sleep at night?” Well, a new study from Yale University has finally found an answer to that age-old question.

Selfish individuals’ minds and memories shield themselves from their selfish actions by misremembering what happened. Conveniently, these people remember being much more altruistic, generous, and fair then they were in reality. 

“When people behave in ways that fall short of their personal standards, one way they maintain their moral self-image is by misremembering their ethical lapses,” explains senior study author Molly Crockett, assistant professor of psychology at Yale, in a university release.

Most people, even the most self-serving and selfish among us, don’t want to see themselves as a bad person. We all want to be moral, but it’s also human nature to look out for one’s self-interests. For decades psychologists and scientists have been interested in studying this dichotomy in human nature. How does one’s brain balance selfish actions against our desire to feel good about ourselves? 

Across many scenarios, it’s common for people to practice “motivated reasoning.” For example, the study’s authors cite someone justifying a stingy tip at a restaurant by convincing themselves their waiter wasn’t all that helpful in the first place — whether or not that’s actually true is inconsequential to the mind’s eye. All that matters is how one perceives that dining experience.

However, for this study, researchers were interested to see if some people’s memories take things a step further. Could especially selfish or self-centered people remember entire experiences differently just so they feel good about themselves? Circling back to the restaurant example, in that case, the cheap tipper would remember leaving a more generous tip than he or she really did. This eliminates any need for motivated reasoning; the waiter did a fine job and in that person’s memory they were rewarded accordingly.

So, to research this theory the team at Yale collaborated with some colleagues from the University of Zurich for a series of psychological experiments. 

During the first experiment, participants were given some money and told to decide how much to keep for themselves and how much to give out to some strangers. After each participant had made their decision, they were asked to recall how much money they distributed to others. Even with the added incentive of a bonus for accurately recalling their actions, the subjects who gave out the smallest amounts remembered giving out more.

Another experiment came to the same conclusion. After being asked to give out money to a group of strangers, only those who had given less and kept more for themselves reported being more generous than they were. 

Finally, a third experiment uncovered another layer to all of this. People only misremembered being selfish if they were personally responsible for their actions. When researchers explicitly told subjects to hand out less money to others, everyone accurately remembered what had happened. 

Across the board, this memory phenomenon only occurred when someone acted selfishly. If a participant gave out their money generously, they always remembered exactly what happened.

“Most people strive to behave ethically, but people sometimes fail to uphold their ideals,” comments first study author Ryan Carlson, a Ph.D. student at Yale. “In such cases, the desire to preserve a moral self-image can be a powerful force and not only motivate us to rationalize our unethical actions, but also ‘revise’ such actions in our memory.”

No one sees themselves as the bad guy. In our eyes, we’re all the protagonists of our stories. This research illustrates the mental hoops our minds jump through to maintain a positive self-image. Ultimately, all one can do is try to be as unselfish as possible each day. Here’s hoping you truly are as generous as you recall.

The full study can be found here, published in Nature Communications.