Psychologist Albert Bandura has devoted his life to the study of human aggression and violence. It is his theoretical constructs that we begin considering today.
Bandura recognized that shame and guilt are uncomfortable emotions and that people will utilize a variety of strategies to avoid feeling them.
For some people, feelings of shame and guilt resulting from bad behavior may lead to positive character development, mature intimacy, generativity, and integrity.
Other people use strategies of “moral disengagement” to help them avoid shame or guilt while continuing to behave badly.
According to Bandura, “mechanisms of moral disengagement” can serve to satisfy their users that they are behaving morally because they are conforming to the values of their role models, spiritual guides, or political leaders.
Unfortunately, many leaders, often with the help of the media, promote the development and use of moral disengagement in order to insure their followers’ compliance in acts of horrifying violence against others. For example, they encourage viewing “the enemy” as someone evil, inferior, and deserving punishment or even elimination.
Bandura has identified several types of moral disengagement that allow ordinary people to tolerate and even contribute to behaviors like torture, rape, and murder–behaviors that violate the ethics of reciprocity, the teachings of love and brotherhood in all major religious texts, and the human rights laws endorsed by the United Nations.
These mechanisms of moral disengagement include:
- “Moral” justification–which we prefer to call “spurious moral justification”
- Euphemistic labeling
- Advantageous comparison
- Displacement of responsibility
- Disregard or distortion of consequences
- Dehumanizing or demonizing the other
In upcoming posts, we will explore each of these mechanisms in more detail, and give common examples of their use. We will also introduce the mechanisms of moral engagement that allow individuals to resist spurious calls to violence in the name of peace.
Be sure to check back to learn more.
Kathie Malley-Morrison, Professor of Psychology
Note: This post was adapted from my previously published article in Peace Psychology (a publication of the American Psychological Association), Spring, 2009.