Memory and morality: A new foundation for the scientific study of autobiographical memory

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Dorthe Berntsen




Aarhus University


DKK 16,472,331




Semper Ardens: Advance


Everyday life is filled with concerns and norms for morality, such as concerns for the welfare of others, fairness, and honesty. Yet, the role of morality has been largely unaddressed in research on autobiographical memory—that is, memory for the personal past. This neglect is detrimental to understanding how people come to evaluate their past events in relation to moral concerns and standards, how our memories can be a source of purpose and meaning as well as a social compass in our interactions with others. The aim of this project is to establish a new foundation for the study of autobiographical memory rooted in the hypothesis of a fundamental interplay between morality and memory.


In contrast to other species, humans regularly evaluate actions and events as to whether they are ethically right or wrong, and demonstrate a continuous sense of obligation toward moral standards shared by a large social collective of genetically unrelated individuals. Such sophisticated sense of morality is unparalleled in other species, and is fundamental to maintaining well-functioning groups and societies. By examining how morality is represented in autobiographical memory and shape our everyday memories and thoughts, this project will deepen our understanding of human nature, and transform the study of autobiographical memory, as well as related areas in social- and personality psychology, moral philosophy and anthropology.


The team represents outstanding expertise in memory research, social and personality psychology, moral philosophy and moral psychology. We will work together on five interrelated subprojects using state-of-the-art autobiographical memory methodologies. We will examine the characteristics of autobiographical memories with (versus without) a moral content, how individual differences in moral concerns are reflected in people’s autobiographical memories, the role of involuntary (spontaneously arising) memories as a vehicle for moral reasoning in daily life, and what happens in memory when the moral order breaks down. The findings will lead to a new understanding on how morality shapes the intentionality and cognitive organization of autobiographical memory, integrating psychological, philosophical and evolutionary perspectives.

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