Six experiments examined how people strategically use thoughts of foregone misdeeds to regulate their moral behavior. We tested two hypotheses:
- That people will feel licensed to act in morally dubious ways when they can point to immoral alternatives to their prior behavior
- That people made to feel insecure about their morality will exaggerate the extent to which such alternatives existed
Supporting the first hypothesis, when white participants could point to racist alternatives to their past actions, they felt they had obtained more evidence of their own virtue (Study 1), they expressed less racial sensitivity (Study 2), and they were more likely to express preferences about employment and allocating money that favored white people at the expense of Black people (Study 3). Supporting the second hypothesis, white participants whose security in their identity as nonracists had been threatened remembered a prior task as having afforded more racist alternatives to their behavior than did those who were not threatened. This distortion of the past involved overestimating the number of Black individuals they had encountered on the prior task (Study 4) and exaggerating how stereotypically Black specific individuals had looked (Studies 5 and 6). We discuss implications for moral behavior, the motivated rewriting of one’s moral history, and how the life unlived can liberate people to lead the life they want.