Memory and morality

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


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.


The team represents outstanding expertise in memory research, social and personality psychology, moral philosophy and 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.

The research group

The team includes outstanding expertise in memory research, social and personality psychology, moral philosophy and psychology.

Dorthe Berntsen (PI), professor at Aarhus University is recognized for her work on autobiographical memory, involuntary remembering and trauma, as well as cultural influences on memory. Her previous work does not address the role of morality in relation to memory, which therefore forms an entirely new research agenda and not a continuation of past research.

Svend Brinkmann, professor at Aalborg University, is recognized for his work on philosophical, moral, and methodological issues in psychology and other social sciences.

Rick Hoyle, professor at Duke University, is recognized for his work on individual differences related to self-appraisal and self-regulation, and advanced statistics in behavioral sciences.

David C. Rubin, professor at Duke University, is recognized for his work on long-term memory for complex (real-world) stimuli, including autobiographical memory, oral traditions, and neuropsychological studies of memory.

Worawach Tungjitcharoen, assistant professor at Thammasat University, studies the impact of religion on autobiographical memory and has published some of the first work on this topic. 

The international participants (Rick Hoyle, David C. Rubin and Worawach Tungjitcharoen) all have strong ties to Denmark through frequent visits in the past and prior collaboration with the PI.

The project is funded by a Semper Ardens Advance Grant ​​​​from the Carlsberg Foundation from September 2023 - 2028.