The Complementary Roles of Memory, Morality, and Counterfactual Thinking in Constructing and Improving the Self

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2021

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Abstract

Despite the ubiquity of wrongdoing in everyday life, the vast majority of people believe that they are truly morally good. Across 15 studies that employ a combination of correlational, experimental, and mediation designs, this dissertation first examines the role of memory in constructing, protecting, and maintaining a morally good self-concept, and then it investigates whether the ways in which our moral transgressions are remembered and mutated can play a role in learning from past mistakes. In two initial studies, autobiographical memories of people’s especially morally good past actions were particularly central to constructions of personal identity. In three subsequent studies, a “knew-it-all-along effect” after acting dishonestly offered a way for people to explain away those past improprieties that could have presented a threat to a morally good self-concept. Then, across seven additional studies, past wrongdoings were attributed to a distant, dissimilar past self who had changed considerably over time for the better. The results of three final studies indicate that remembering, reflecting on, and mutating past events can serve a directive function by strengthening intentions for future moral improvement.

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Stanley, Matthew Lawrence (2021). The Complementary Roles of Memory, Morality, and Counterfactual Thinking in Constructing and Improving the Self. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/23009.

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