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Moral Disengagement: The Evidence

A variety of evidence indicates that moral disengagement is a valid and useful construct.

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Having understood the theory, we now need to ask, What evidence supports the view that moral disengagement occurs? And is there evidence that it can explain morally-relevant judgements and actions?

Bandura, Barbaranelli, Caprara, & Pastorelli (1996) constructed a questionnaire with four items for each of the eight postulated mechanisms. To illustrate with just one of the four items (the questionnaire was used to study bullying in 10--15 year old children ):

  1. Moral justification - ‘It is alright to lie to keep your friends out of trouble.’

  2. Euphemistic language - ‘Slapping and shoving someone is just a way of joking.’

  3. Advantageous comparison - ‘It is okay to insult a classmate because beating him/her is worse.’

  4. Displacement of responsibility - ‘If kids are living under bad conditions they cannot be blamed for behaving aggressively.’

  5. Diffusion of responsibility - ‘If a group decides together to do something harmful it is unfair to blame any kid in the group for it.’

  6. Distorting consequences - ‘Children do not mind being teased because it shows interest in them.’

  7. Attribution of blame - ‘If people are careless where they leave their things it is their own fault if they get stolen.’

  8. Dehumanization - ‘Some people have to be treated roughly because they lack feelings that can be hurt.’

The results indicates that a single factor could be regarded as responsible for subjects’ responses on all items.[1] This factor correlated significantly with antisocial behaviour, among other things. Those who scored highly on this factor

‘tend to be more irascible, ruminate about perceived grievances, and are neither much troubled by guilt nor feel the need to make amends for harmful conduct. They also engage in a higher level of interpersonal aggression and delinquent behavior‘ (Bandura et al., 1996, p. 368).

This indicates that the theory of moral disengagement may be correct (or at least useful), and that the questionnaire measures moral disengagement.

Further support for these conclusions is provided by a study using the questionnaire with a demographically different population (single-parent African Americans, vs Italians), which replicated key findings (e.g. the single factor) and generated broadly congruent results overall (Pelton, Gound, Forehand, & Brody, 2004).

The measure of moral disengagement did not correlate with socioeconomic factors in either study (Bandura et al., 1996, p. 371; Pelton et al., 2004, p. 38).[2] This is important because any such correlation would not be explained by the theory of moral disengagement and could indicate that the questionnaire fails to capture a useful construct.

Variants of scale have also been developed and found useful. For example, Boardley & Kavussanu (2007) provide evidence that antisocial behaviours in sport are linked to moral disengagement. Osofsky, Bandura, & Zimbardo (2005) found that moral disengagement plays a role in enabling prison workers to perform tasks essential for executing prisoners. And McAlister, Bandura, & Owen (2006) compared moral disengagement in the United States before and after the September 11th terrorist strike, finding a significant increase in moral disengagement which was correlated with a significant increase in support for the use of military force. Strikingly, these authors found that the terrorist strike itself appeared to have no effect on support for the use of military force other than through increased moral disengagement (p. 156).

Overall, we have sufficient grounds to accept that moral disengagement occurs, and that it can explain some morally-relevant judgements and actions.

But why is moral disengagement relevant to our concerns with moral psychology?

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construct : A factor postulated by a theory with the aim of explaining patterns of behaviour. Examples of constructs include moral conviction, moral disengagement and the moral foundations from Moral Foundations Theory.
moral disengagement : Moral disengagement occurs when self-sanctions are disengaged from conduct. To illustrate, an executioner may avoid self-sanctioning for killing by reframing the role they play as ‘babysitting’ (Bandura, 2002, p. 103). Bandura (2002, p. 111) identifies several mechanisms of moral disengagement: ‘The disengagement may centre on redefining harmful conduct as honourable by moral justification, exonerating social comparison and sanitising language. It may focus on agency of action so that perpetrators can minimise their role in causing harm by diffusion and displacement of responsibility. It may involve minimising or distorting the harm that follows from detrimental actions; and the disengagement may include dehumanising and blaming the victims of the maltreatment.’
useful construct : A useful construct is one that can explain an interesting range of target phenomena.
valid construct : For the purposes of this course, a valid construct is one that can be measured using a tool (often a questionnaire) where there is sufficient evidence to conclude that the tool measures the construct. When used for cross-cultural comparisons, the tool should exhibit metric and scalar invariance (i.e. it should measure the same construct in the same way irrespective of which the culture participant belongs to).
Note that the term ‘construct validity’ is used in many different ways. It is probably best to try to understand it case-by-case—each time the term occurs, ask yourself what the researchers are claiming to have shown. If you do want an overview, Drost (2011) is one source.


Bandura, A. (2002). Selective Moral Disengagement in the Exercise of Moral Agency. Journal of Moral Education, 31(2), 101–119.
Bandura, A., Barbaranelli, C., Caprara, G., & Pastorelli, C. (1996). Mechanisms of Moral Disengagement in the Exercise of Moral Agency. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(2), 364–374.
Boardley, I. D., & Kavussanu, M. (2007). Development and Validation of the Moral Disengagement in Sport Scale. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 29(5), 608–628.
Drost, E. A. (2011). Validity and Reliability in Social Science Research. Education Research and Perspectives, 38(1), 105–123.
McAlister, A. L., Bandura, A., & Owen, S. V. (2006). Mechanisms of Moral Disengagement in Support of Military Force: The Impact of Sept. 11. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 25(2), 141–165.
Osofsky, M. J., Bandura, A., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2005). The Role of Moral Disengagement in the Execution Process. Law and Human Behavior, 29(4), 371–393.
Pelton, J., Gound, M., Forehand, R., & Brody, G. (2004). The Moral Disengagement Scale: Extension with an American Minority Sample. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 26(1), 31–39.


  1. See Bandura et al. (1996, p. 367): ‘A principal-components factor analysis with varimax orthogonal rotation revealed a single factor structure.’ ↩︎

  2. McAlister et al. (2006, pp. 151--2, 160), who used an 11-item questionnaire with a U.S. adult population do report effects on moral disengagement of education, ethnicity, age and location. ↩︎