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Moral disengagement

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Bandura (1986) maintained that individuals sometimes disengage from their moral responsibilities. That is, even if individuals violate their usual standards, they do not always perceive their behavior as unethical.

In particular, individuals like to perceive themselves as ethical and just. Whenever they behave unethically or unjustly, they invoke a series of beliefs or assumptions that justify or explain their behavior. These beliefs or assumptions reconcile the unethical behavior of these individuals with the assumption they are moral people, curbing any sense of dissonance (see Cognitive dissonance).


Bandura (1986, 1999) identified eight mechanisms that individuals might deploy to elicit this moral disengagement. Three of these mechanisms are designed to conceptualize these unsuitable behaviors as ethical. First, individuals might justify immoral behavior: They might maintain this behavior could translate into some unexpected benefit. If they steal some pens from work, they might contend this stationary could be used by their children, enhancing their creativity. Second, individuals might apply euphemisms to describe unsuitable behavior. They might claim they merely "shifted stationary" to describe their theft or "misrepresentation" to describe outright fabrications. Third, they might contrast their behavior with even more unethical examples, to ensure their acts seem reasonable in comparison.

Two of these mechanisms are intended to devolve responsibility. That is, individuals might contend they were coerced to engage in some act. Alternatively, they might argue they were behaving as part of a team.

Several other mechanisms can also be applied to elicit moral disengagement. Individuals might trivialize the consequences of their actions. They can dehumanize the target of their behavior& they might perceive the victim as an object rather than a person, as well as minimize the perceived suffering of this individual. Finally, they might blame the target.


Moral disengagement is prevalent. Individuals often breach their own moral standards, as many studies demonstrate. In a typical study, participants are informed that two activities must be completed. One of the activities is relatively desirable: Individuals can potentially earn raffle tickets, for example. The other activity is undesirable and no raffle tickets can be awarded. Next, participants are told to assign one of these tasks to another person and one of these tasks to themselves. They are informed the other person would not know they were granted this opportunity to assign the tasks.

In most of these studies, between 70 and 80% of participants allocated the desirable task to themselves. Nevertheless, 90% of participants also felt that such behavior was not moral or right. These participants, therefore, do not follow their own moral principles (e.g., Batson, Kobrynowicz, Dinnerstein, Kampf, & Wilson, 1997;; for a review, see Batson, Lishner, Carpenter, Dulin, Harjusola-Webb, Stocks, et al., 2010).

Even if participants are granted the opportunity to toss a coin, as a means to decide who should complete the undesirable task, a similar pattern of results emerged. Specifically, 50% of participants do not toss the coin and again 70 to 80% of these individuals allocate the desirable task to themselves. Furthermore, even if participants do toss the coin, between 85 and 90% of individuals assign the desirable task to themselves.

Moral disengagement: Antecedents

Attitudes and beliefs

Detert and Trevino (2008) attempted to examine the individual characteristics that affect the likelihood of moral disengagement. Specifically, participants completed a series of scales, designed to measure empathy, cynicism, and locus of control. In addition, participants completed a measure that assesses the extent to which individuals engage in the eight mechanisms that can evoke moral disengagement. A typical question is "Insults don't readily hurt anyone". Finally, participants read several scenarios, designed to assess the likelihood they would act ethically.

If individuals reported elevated rather than low levels of empathy, they were not as likely to engage in moral disengagement (Detert & Trevino, 2008). Empathy, presumably, curbs the likelihood that individuals can dismiss the suffering of victims and thus trivialize the consequences of their actions. In addition, trait cynicism increased the likelihood of moral disengagement. That is, people who perceive humans as untrustworthy in general often distance themselves from other individuals. They can more readily dehumanize their victim, facilitating moral disengagement. Finally, individuals who feel that many events can be ascribed to fortune and luck are also more likely to exhibit moral disengagement. This belief enables individuals to devolve responsibility. Moral disengagement increased the likelihood of unethical behavior.


As Hinrichs, Wang, Hinrichs, and Romero (2012) showed, if people experience elevated levels of self-efficacy in leadership, they are not as likely to experience moral disengagement. That is, when people believe they are capable of organizing, coordinating, and inspiring other people to fulfill some goal, they do not feel they can ascribe their behaviors to the demands or imperatives of other individuals. They cannot abdicate their moral responsibility. Consequently, they are not as likely to demonstrate moral disengagement. Consistent with this possibility, people who reported leadership self-efficacy were not as likely to endorse items such as "People cannot be blamed for misbehaving if they were pressured to do it". That is, they are not as likely to devolve responsibility to other causes.

Attachment style

Sometimes, individuals perceive other people in their surroundings, such as their parents or friends, as consistently supportive. They feel they will receive assistance when needed, called a secure attachment. In contrast, some individuals feel they may be rejected by other people, called an anxious attachment. Because of this concern, these individuals are more likely to construe situations as threats. They often, therefore, feel justified in dismissing moral concerns to protect themselves. They may thus be more willing to morally disengage.

This possibility was validated by Chugh, Kern, Zhu, and Lee (2013). In their study, participants imagined situations in which they experienced either a secure attachment or anxious attachment. For example, they imagined feeling accepted or rejected by someone else, before describing this situation in detail. Next, they were asked whether they would slightly exaggerate their academic achievements to secure a job. If participants experienced secure attachment, rather than insecure attachment, they were not as inclined to inflate their achievements. In addition, as another study showed, this association was mediated by items that reflect moral disengagement or perceiving the setting as a threat.

Ideological beliefs

According to Jackson and Gaertner (2010), social dominance orientation and right wing authoritarianism might promote moral disengagement. Social dominance orientation represents the extent to which individuals embrace myths and ideologies that maintain or amplify hierarchies in society& individuals who report a social dominance orientation believe that some groups are inherently superior to other groups. Right wing authoritarianism represents the degree to which individuals believe that authority should always be followed rather than challenged. Social dominance orientation might prompt individuals to degrade potential victims. Right wing authoritarianism coincides with the belief the world is dangerous, enabling individuals to feel that aggressive behavior such as war, for example, might be justifiable.

Jackson and Gaertner (2010) conducted a study to assess these propositions. American participants completed a series of measures. First, they received scales that measure social dominance orientation and right wing authoritarianism. Second, they completed measures that assess the inclination of individuals to disengage morally. Some of these questions related to minimizing the consequences, such as "Reports of damage resulting from military interventions are usually exaggerated". Other questions assessed conceptualizations of war as moral, with items like "It is our duty to stop terrorists by any means necessary". Finally, these completed measures that assess their attitudes to war. Some questions referred to their support of the US invasion of Iraq. Furthermore, some participants read a scenario about a fictional conflict between two nations and then answered questions about whether they would support a war in this region.

Right wing authoritarianism was related to support of wars. This association was mediated by both minimizing the consequences and moral justifications (Jackson & Gaertner, 2010). Social dominance orientation generated similar effects as did right wing authoritarianism, but was not as strongly associated with these two mechanisms of moral disengagement. Nevertheless, social dominance orientation was highly related to another mechanism of moral disengagement, called dehumanizing or blaming victims, as measured by items like "Enemy rulers and their followers are no better than animals".

Social identity

Similarly, ingroup glorification, or the extent to which individuals perceive their group as superior, might also increase the likelihood of moral disengagement. In one study, conducted by Leidner, Castano, Zaiser, and Giner-Sorolla (2010), American participants read about atrocities committed by personnel towards Iraqi prisoners. Some participants were told the perpetrators were American& other participants were told the perpetrators were Australian. In addition, they extent to which the participants engaged in two forms of moral disengagement--emotional minimization and explicit dehumanization--were assessed. That is, participants were asked to indicate the extent to which the Iraqi prisoners experienced negative emotions and the degree to which these people are civilized or uncivilized. Finally, participants reported the extent to which they felt attached to their nation, called ingroup attachment, as well as the degree to which they perceived their nation as superior, called ingroup glorification.

If ingroup glorification was elevated, participants demonstrated moral disengagement, but only if informed the perpetrators were depicted as American. That is, they often maintained the suffering of these Iraqi prisoners was minimal and regarded these prisoners as uncivilized, representing emotional minimization and explicit dehumanization respectively (Leidner, Castano, Zaiser, & Giner-Sorolla, 2010). These observations persisted even after social dominance orientation (see Social dominance theory) or a facet of right wing authoritarianism was controlled. In contrast, ingroup attachment did not affect moral disengagement. Presumably, if individuals perceive their group as superior, derogatory portrayals of members threatens this perception, eliciting defensive reactions.


Hyde, Shaw, and Moilanen (2010) conducted a longitudinal study to examine the antecedents to moral disengagement. Specifically, children and their mothers were assessed 12 times over the course of 15 or so years. For the purpose of this study, the behaviour of parents was assessed when the children, all boys, were 1.5 to 2 year. That is, the children undertook a series of structured tasks, such as cleaning. Trainers rated the extent to which the parents seemed critical, disapproving, hostile, and punitive, for example. In addition, the mothers completed a scale to assess the extent to which the parents demonstrated aggression towards one another.

Furthermore, the socioeconomic status of the neighbourhood or block was assessed, derived from measures like median family income, unemployment, and education. At 12, a measure of empathy was administered. At 15, a measure of moral disengagement was included, such as "It is alright to beat someone who bad mouths your family". Finally, the extent to which the children, at 16 or 17, engaged in antisocial behaviour was assessed with a self report measure.

Structural equation modelling showed that rejecting parents--that is, parents who were critical, disapproving, hostile, and punitive--subsequently curbed empathy in their children. This empathy, together with impoverished neighbourhoods, provoked moral disengagement. Moral disengagement increased the likelihood of antisocial behaviour.

Several mechanisms could underpin the association between rejecting parents and limited empathy in their children. Perhaps, the children internalize the critical and hostile attributions their parents demonstrate. That is, children also become harsh in their attitudes, rather than consider the situation from the perspective of someone else, representing low empathy. Alternatively, the children might learn to reduce their reliance on other people. Therefore, they do not strive to fulfil the needs of anyone else, curbing their inclination to decipher the emotional state of other people.

This limited empathy then fosters moral disengagement. That is, the individuals do not perceive their acts as consequential or hurtful, because they do not consider the emotional state of other people. They can engage in antisocial behaviour without experiencing any sense of guilt.

Impoverished neighbourhoods might also promote this moral disengagement. In these neighbourhoods, merely to survive, many individuals might often engage in immoral behaviours. These individuals develop narratives to justify these behaviours, perhaps be inflating the fault of other people. Teenagers in these areas might then internalize these attributions, promoting moral disengagement.

Limited empathy and perspective taking

As Batson, Lishner, Carpenter, Dulin, Harjusola-Webb, Stocks et al (2010) showed, when individuals adopt the perspective of someone else, they often become more moral, but not in all circumstances. In one study, participants were informed that two activities must be completed. One of the activities was relatively desirable: Individuals could potentially earn raffle tickets, for example. The other activity was undesirable and no raffle tickets could be awarded. Next, participants were told to assign one of these tasks to another person and one of these tasks to themselves. They were informed the other person would not know they were granted this opportunity to assign the tasks.

Some participants were then instructed to imagine how they would feel if they were experiencing the same circumstances as the other person. That is, for a minute or so, they envisaged, and then transcribed, the thoughts and feelings they would experience if they were waiting to learn which task they will be assigned and then discovered which activity they needed to complete.

In contrast, some participants were instructed to imagine the thoughts and feelings of the other person. That is, rather than envisage how they would feel in this circumstance, they considered the cognitions and emotions of the other person only. Finally, some participants did not complete either of these exercises.

If participants had imagined how the other person might feel, they became more inclined to assign this individual the desirable task. Indeed, almost 60% of these people allocated this person the pleasant activity. If participants, however, had imagined how they would feel--or were not instructed to form any image--they were not as likely to assign this person the desirable task. Only 25% of these participants allocated this person the pleasant activity.

Conceivably, when individuals imagine the feelings and emotions of the other person, they experience empathy, tenderness, and compassion. This empathy tends to evoke the motivation to enhance the welfare of the other person. Indeed, compassion most likely evolved to enable people to help children, relatives, and other needy individuals. Consistent with this premise, participants in this condition did report elevated levels of empathy, tenderness, and compassion.

In contrast, when individuals imagine how they would feel in the same circumstance, they do not necessarily experience empathy or compassion towards the other person. The other person is not salient in this image. They do not, therefore, act as morally.

Nevertheless, in some circumstances, as Batson, Lishner, Carpenter, Dulin, Harjusola-Webb, Stocks et al (2010) demonstrated, individuals may become more moral after they undertake this exercise. Specifically, in another study, some participants were told they, as well as another person, would be asked to complete various questions, but in separate locations. For every correct question, the participants would receive two raffle tickets and the other person would receive no raffle tickets. This person was not aware the participants would receive the raffle tickets, however. Next, participants were granted an opportunity to modify the distribution of raffle tickets, ensuring they would both receive one ticket each.

In this instance, after participants imagined how they would feel if they had been assigned to the same circumstances as was the other person, their morality increased. They were more inclined to redistribute the tickets fairly. In this scenario, the other person had been disadvantaged relative to the participant. The images, presumably, may have underscored this disadvantage. The corresponding awareness could have fostered moral behavior.

Substantial empathy and moral engagement

Usually, individuals perceive their own community as moral and just. They often justify unethical behaviors that are committed by members of their community, often by applying the principles of moral disengagement and other defence mechanisms. Nevertheless, in some contexts, individuals do not apply these defence mechanisms. Instead, if members of their community behave inappropriately, they may shift their opinions of their group. Specifically, feelings of empathy, coupled with a sense of distance from the event, may foster this willingness to shift their opinions.

One study, undertaken by Eccleston, Kaiser, and Kraynak (2010), illustrates this possibility. This study was conducted between 18 and 24 months after Hurricane Katrina, a disaster that destroyed New Orleans in 2005. The participants were White American university students. These individuals watched video clips, all of which graphically depicted Hurricane Katrina. The footage demonstrated instances in which the government response to this catastrophe was delayed and inept. For example, this video showed some individuals marooned on bridges or rooftops, waiting desperately to be rescued.

Three conditions were introduced. First, while they watched this footage, some participants were also exposed to the explanations of politicians, journalists, public figures, and residents of New Orleans. These experts argued that discrimination against African Americans had magnified this problem. That is, because of racial discrimination, the levees were defective, and efforts dedicated to the rescue of these residents was not sufficient. Second, other participants were exposed to experts who alluded to government incompetence and inadequate preparation. Finally, in the third condition, some participants were exposed to neither of these explanations.

Before watching these videos, participants completed questions that assessed whether or not they felt their society is just. Some of the questions related to a protestant work ethic. For example, participants indicated the extent to which "America is a just society where differences in status between group reflect actual group differences" or "Most people who don't get ahead should not blame the system& they really only have themselves to blame".

After watching these videos, the participants completed more questions. Some questions determined the extent to which the participants felt empathy, compassion, warmth, and tenderness towards the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Other questions gauged attitudes towards racial prejudice. They answered questions such as "The US government doesn't care about Black people".

Some of the participants were persuaded by the video and explanations. For example, before watching the video, many of the participants perceived American society to be fair and just. However, after they were exposed to graphic footage as well as explanations that alluded to racism, their attitudes changed. They became more likely to presume that US governments disregard the needs of African Americans and are thus unjust. They shifted their beliefs, especially if they had experienced empathy towards the victims.

Presumably, when individuals feel empathy and similar emotions, their usual defence mechanisms are disrupted. They do not initiate thoughts that justify their community and promote moral disengagement. Instead, the emotion of empathy seems to preclude these thoughts.

Furthermore, when a catastrophe unfolded a significant time ago, people are also more inclined to shift their attitudes. This sense of distance from the event activates an abstract construal (see construal level theory). That is, people focus on broader, intangible concepts instead of specific, tangible details. This awareness of broader, intangible concepts often enables individuals to conceptualize the same event from a different perspective& that is, these individuals can invoke different concepts, causes, and factors to contemplate the same event. They are, therefore, able to shift their attitudes more readily.

Sharing the benefits of immoral behavior

Sometimes, individuals may engage in deceptive behavior to earn more money. They might, for example, inflate their expenses on a tax return. If people, however, share some of these earnings with someone else--even a stranger--they do not perceive this act as quite as immoral. They will, therefore, become more inclined to engage in this deceit (Wiltermuth, 2011).

Wiltermuth (2011) conducted a series of studies that verify this possibility. In one study, participants received a series of anagrams to solve. For example, they may have unscrambled the string Eoshu to form the word House. The number of anagrams solved would determine the reward they, or someone else, would achieve. However, if they could not solve one anagram, the subsequent anagrams would not count.

After attempting these items, participants were told to specify the number of anagrams they solved. However, the third anagram was almost impossible. Given they did not need to write the answers, participants were granted an opportunity to cheat. Many participants thus exaggerated the number of anagrams they solved.

Nevertheless, the extent to which they exaggerated depended on the rewards that were granted. If participants were informed they would receive $2 for each anagram they solved, they did not often cheat. If they were informed they would receive only 1$ and someone else, either a stranger or friend, would receive the other $1, they were significantly more inclined to cheat. If they were informed this other person would receive all the money, they did not cheat often. Presumably, people wanted to cheat to earn more money, but justified this behavior as moral only if they shared the earnings with someone else.

The subsequent studies examined the generalizability of these observations. A similar pattern emerged even if the money was not distributed evenly. However, individuals did not cheat as often if the other person was depicted as prejudiced and thus immoral. Perhaps, participants can justify cheating as moral only if the other beneficiary is portrayed favorably. The findings also challenge alternative explanations, such as a need to maintain equality or the financial benefits of cooperation: An uneven distribution did not prevent cheating but rewards that were entirely distributed to other people did not elicit cheating.

Related findings

The effects of darkness

In dark or dim conditions, individuals tend to perform better on tasks that demand creativity. That is, in these darker conditions, people feel anonymous and thus unfettered from constraints, enhancing originality (Steidle & Werth, 2013).

Specifically, in one study, conducted by Steidle and Werth (2013), participants described a situation in which they had been exposed either to bright light or darkness. They were granted five minutes to describe this situation. Next, they completed a task that assesses creativity. Specifically, they were instructed to imagine visiting another planet in the universe and to draw a creature that inhabits this planet. Two independent judges evaluated the extent to which the drawing was creative, similar to creatures on Earth, and comprised atypical or unique features-such as no sensory organs, unusual configurations such as legs connected to the head, and uncommon functions, such as eating with legs. Images of a dark place enhanced creativity and increased the number of atypical features.

Subsequent studies replicated these findings. For example, imagining darkness increased the capacity of individuals to suggest creative uses of common household items. Furthermore, in one study, darkness was manipulated by exposing individuals to words that correspond to darkness, such as cave, night, and tunnel, or brightness, such as sun, day, white. Again, darkness enhanced creativity as well as diminished vigilance and caution on other tasks. Finally, some studies showed the same pattern of observations persisted when the actual level of darkness, rather than only primes of darkness, were manipulated.


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Last Update: 7/12/2016