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People found to remember atrocities in ways that favor their group

April 23, 2014
Courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

Peo­ple re­mem­ber war­time atro­ci­ties dif­fer­ently de­pend­ing on which group the per­pe­tra­tors be­long to—and favor their own group, a new study finds.

“We started think­ing about this proj­ect around the time when sto­ries be­gan to emerge… about atro­ci­ties com­mit­ted by Amer­i­can sol­diers in Iraq and Af­ghanistan,” said lead re­search­er Alin Co­man, a psy­chol­o­gist at Prince­ton Uni­vers­ity.

As peo­ple dis­cuss events, sto­ries of­ten change over time. Co­man and col­leagues won­dered wheth­er this re­work­ing might change peo­ple’s mem­o­ries. Lis­ten­ers, they sup­posed, might more easily for­get “jus­tifica­t­ions” for atro­ci­ties blamed on those from an out­side group, than si­m­i­lar “jus­tifica­t­ions” for their own group.

In oth­er words, peo­ple might be in­clined to shield mem­bers of their own group from mor­al re­spon­si­bil­ity.

The re­search­ers asked 72 Amer­i­cans to read sto­ries about per­pe­tra­tors of war atro­ci­ties who were ei­ther Amer­i­can or Af­ghan sol­diers. The sto­ries were drawn from, or de­vised to re­sem­ble, ac­tu­al me­dia re­ports. But all atro­ci­ties came with a “jus­ti­fy­ing” ac­tion: For ex­am­ple, a per­pe­tra­tor sub­merged an in­sur­gen­t’s head in cold wa­ter be­cause he had with­held in­forma­t­ion about an up­com­ing at­tack.

Par­ti­ci­pants stud­ied the sto­ries and, af­ter a 10-minute “dis­trac­tor” task, watched a vi­deo of some­one else re­count­ing the atro­ci­ties—with­out re­peat­ing the jus­tifica­t­ion­s—from two of the four sto­ries pre­sented. Af­ter anoth­er dis­trac­tor task, par­ti­ci­pants were asked to re­call as much as they could about each sto­ry.

Par­ti­ci­pants were more likely to for­get “jus­tifica­t­ions” for the atro­ci­ties com­mit­ted by Af­ghan sol­diers than for Amer­i­cans, the study found. 

The mes­sage is that “mor­al dis­en­gage­ment strate­gies” are “fun­da­men­tally al­ter­ing our mem­o­ries,” said Co­man. “These strate­gies af­fect the de­gree to which our mem­o­ries are in­flu­enced by the con­versa­t­ions we have.” The find­ings are pub­lished in the jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.


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People remember wartime atrocities differently depending on which group the perpetrators belong to, a new study finds. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it found that people remember atrocities in a way that gives the benefit of the doubt to their own group. “We started thinking about this project around the time when stories began to emerge… about atrocities committed by American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said lead researcher Alin Coman, psychologist a at Princeton University. As people discuss events, stories often change over time. Coman and colleagues wondered whether this reworking might change people’s memories. Listeners, they supposed, might more easily forget “justifications” for atrocities blamed on those from an outside group, than similar “justifications” for their own group. In other words, people might be inclined to shield members of their own group from moral responsibility. The researchers asked 72 American participants to read stories about perpetrators of war atrocities who were either American or Afghan soldiers. The stories were drawn from, or devised to resemble, actual media reports. But all atrocities came with a “justifying” action: For example, a perpetrator submerged an insurgent’s head in cold water because he had withheld information about an upcoming attack. Participants studied the stories and, after a 10-minute “distractor” task, watched a video of someone else recounting the atrocities — without repeating the justifications — from two of the four stories presented. After another distractor task, participants were asked to recall as much as they could about each story. Participants were more likely to forget “justifications” for the atrocities committed by Afghan soldiers than for Americans, the study found. The message is that “moral disengagement strategies” are “fundamentally altering our memories,” said Coman. “These strategies affect the degree to which our memories are influenced by the conversations we have.” The findings are published in the journal Psychological Science.