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Justifying and Erasing Memories of Atrocities

Perhaps it is not a surprise to learn that people rationalize wartime atrocities to justify their actions, with the justifications sometimes being so strong as to alter memory of the event.

For some time now stories about wartime atrocities and torture methods, like waterboarding and beatings, have included justifications, despite whether the rationale was legitimate.

In a new Princeton University study, investigators now show how justifications actually influence a person’s memories of war, excusing the actions of their side.

The report, in the journal Psychological Science, shows how Americans’ motivation to remember information that absolves American soldiers of atrocities, alters their memories.

“People are motivated to remember information that morally disengages them,” said lead author Alin Coman, Ph.D. “By doing so, they can absolve themselves or their group from responsibility.”

For the study, Coman and his collaborators recruited 72 participants: 56 percent were female, 44 percent were male and all participants identified as European-American.

Experiments were conducted in two parts.

First, in the study phase, participants were asked to read four, 160-word stories about situations that soldiers and fighters were exposed to in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each story contained both atrocities committed by the soldiers and the justifications for those actions.

All stories were fictitious but based on true media reports of atrocities that had occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each tale contained “critical items,” which included details of the atrocities committed by soldiers and the justifications for these atrocities, and “filler facts,” such as the soldiers’ fictitious names and hometowns.

Two versions of each story were created — one in which the perpetrator was an American soldier (ex. “Jim Green”) and another in which the perpetrator was an Afghan soldier (ex. “Jawid Gawri).

Half of the participants read the American version of the story while the other half read the Afghan version. The order of the stories varied among participants, and they had 90 seconds to read each tale.

One story included a soldier who hit a prisoner repeatedly with a belt because the prisoner threw food in the cafeteria. Another story depicted a soldier submerging a prisoner’s head in water because he was unwilling to speak about an upcoming attack.

Next, in the practice phase, participants watched a video of either a male or female actor selectively retelling only the atrocities from two of the initially studied stories. However, this time, the actors left out the justifications.

Coman and his collaborators designed the experiment this way to analyze retrieval-induced forgetting, in which the brain filters out some memories and holds on to others, altering the initially stored memory of an event.

“When we retrieve memories we usually don’t remember everything we experience,” said Coman.

“Rather, we selectively retrieve information from memory. The simple act of retrieving memories reinforces those memories and makes them more likely to be remembered in the future. But, this comes at a cost — important information related to these memories can be lost later.”

After the second phase was completed, participants then performed what Coman calls a “distractor task,” which included filling out a basic questionnaire.

This exercise mimicked the natural delay between hearing a story and retelling it later. Participants were then isolated in a room and asked to write down everything they could about the original four stories they read. To jog their memories, participants were given cue words like “Jim Green” and “robbery.”

The recall data was then coded based on what participants remembered, and the researchers analyzed and computed the recall scores for the atrocities, justifications and filler facts. Through statistical analyses, they found that atrocities mentioned by the actors were more likely to be remembered by the participants, regardless of whether the perpetrator was American or Afghan.

However, they also found that participants were more likely to remember the justifications for atrocities committed by Americans soldiers than for atrocities committed by the Afghan soldiers.

“As an American participant, you would like to justify those atrocities and so you say, ‘Yes, those happened but they happened for a reason.’ So, as you’re listening to the information presented by the speaker in the video, these motivational forces are driving you to retrieve justifications for the atrocities committed by American soldiers,” Coman said.

“The findings have implications for both policy and journalism,” Coman said.

“In terms of policy, it’s important to acknowledge that the way you remember the past is guiding your decisions, the way you vote and who you support. While this study didn’t analyze political behavior, the general finding could have overtones in the political domain, from political campaigning to ethnic conflict.”

“In terms of journalistic reporting, journalists need to decide how to report information from wartime situations,” Coman said. “Do they include both atrocities and justifications? How can they better report these situations so they aren’t creating conditions for these biases to emerge?”

Source: Princeton University

Justifying and Erasing Memories of Atrocities

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Justifying and Erasing Memories of Atrocities. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 16 May 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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