Motivated Forgetting

One of the creepier phenomena I’ve encountered as a human is motivated forgetting.

And one of the more powerful moments of my life was the first time I noticed myself doing it. I was with my boyfriend at the time. I can’t remember whether we were having an argument in the moment or I was remembering an argument we’d had somewhat earlier, but I was recording video of myself.

As I sat there, rehearsing some thoughts about how right I was, I looked into the camera and thought, “What if all of my thoughts were being recorded?” And I realized that my current mental operating system would break down if I had records of what was going on in my head, because I was sometimes throwing out data that didn’t fit my identity.

I wish I could remember what it was that I remembered forgetting. I think it had to do with whether I had said something to my boyfriend at the time during an argument. In the recording, I looked at the camera and said, “I think I just realized that accepting reality is harder than I thought it was.”

Upon realizing that I’d been trying to forget something unflattering on purpose, I also felt very ashamed. But feeling ashamed upon realizing is an excellent way to encourage further dishonesty with myself. The answer is (almost?) always to reward the behavior you want more of. 

First, consider the possibility that you may engage in motivated forgetting. Not everyone does it, as far as I can tell, but it’s also pretty common.

Second, decide that, if you were doing it, you’d want to know! You can always still decide to lie, if that’s the issue. I don’t recommend lying, but I do think that lying to others is a bit better than lying to yourself. You’ll make the best possible decisions if you stop withholding information from yourself.

Third, be on the lookout, and then be very, very pleased without yourself if you ever catch yourself forgetting on purpose. Awareness is an extremely useful first step.

(One hack you can use if you’re trying to figure out if you’re being honest with yourself is slightly changing the questions you’re asking yourself. Instead of saying, “Did I do that thing?”, try “If I found out that there were a video tape of what happened, how would I feel about watching it? Would I be shocked if I found out that I did the thing?” Accessing your true anticipations may be more involved than consulting your verbal loop and believing the first thing it says, but it’s rarely actually difficult.)