Justifying Atrocities (Coman et al., 2014)

Justifying Atrocities: The effect of moral-disengagement strategies on socially shared retrieval-induced forgetting (Coman, Stone, Castano, & Hirst, 2014)

This week in our journal discussion group, I presented the above paper by Coman et al. (2014). According to the authors, when we discuss atrocities, we talk about more than just the facts. Based on the moral disengagement literature, we also seek to justify those atrocities. However, these discussions may change over time due to memory decay, when an audience loses interest, or a desire to downplay the justifications.

This led to their research question: Does listening to a shortened account of an atrocity alter the memories that people have of the justifications of that atrocity. This is hypothesized to occur because of retrieval-induced forgetting (RIF), which argues that the retrieved memory will be strengthened but associated and competing memories will be less accessible afterwards. In other words, having to retrieve or remember the atrocity may lead people to forget the associated justification. This RIF may happen at a social level (social shared RIF) where a listener and speaker both covertly retrieve a memory and experience the same RIF. However, we can override this RIF if we are motivated to remember certain justifications – motivated recall account. If the atrocity is about an ingroup member, we may be motivated to recall the justification to protect our ingroup’s reputation.

In order to examine socially shared RIF and motivated recall, they asked participants to read about atrocities committed by either an ingroup or outgroup member.

The authors got participants to read 4 stories, each containing 3 atrocities in the 2 conditions. They then measured emotionality, had a 10 minute distractor task, showed participants videos of confederates “remembering” selected atrocities (2 out of the 4) but not the justifications, another distractor task, then a recall test where participants attempted to remember all 4 atrocities and justifications.

They found that participants were more likely to forget justifications in the outgroup condition (socially shared RIF) but more motivated to remember justifications in the ingroup condition (motivated recall).

In summary, if you read a story where an outgroup member commits an atrocity, and experience socially shared RIF when you are prompted to recall the atrocity with another person, then you will be less able to recall the associated justification. This changes if the story is about an ingroup member, because you will be motivated to recall the justifications, negating the effects of socially shared RIF.

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