Advantageous comparison (Moral disengagement, part 4)

Advantageous comparison is another form of moral disengagement described byUp and down arrows psychologist Albert Bandura. This mechanism is a way of trying to make one behavior look good by comparing it with a more frightful alternative.

For example, during the Vietnam War, massive destruction of the Vietnamese countryside by means of Agent Orange was portrayed as being a lot better for the Vietnamese people than being enslaved by the Communists.

One of the most familiar forms of advantageous comparison used to justify war and torture is “sacrificing a few to save thousands.” Undoubtedly, many people still believe that the dropping of atomic bombs on citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved thousands of American lives—an assumption with no real support.

Advantageous comparison became integral to “24,” a popular American television show. The program routinely justified the use of torture as essential to avoiding the greater disasters that could (ostensibly) hurt the innocent if torture had not been used.

The TV series was particularly popular among conservatives, many of whom apparently accepted the program’s message that not only is torture necessary to safeguard “national security” but also that it works.

This belief in the justifiability of a practice banned in international law flies in the face of warnings by experts on torture, including senior military and FBI officials.  These and other experts criticized “24” for misrepresenting the effectiveness of torture and contributing to the misbelief that torture is justifiable.

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.

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3 Responses to Advantageous comparison (Moral disengagement, part 4)

  1. After reading the post I feel that was an important read for me!! Thank you for your comparison!

  2. …”during the Vietnam War, massive destruction of the Vietnamese countryside by means of Agent Orange was portrayed as being a lot better for the Vietnamese people than being enslaved by the Communists.”

    Well said! Thanks for the post!

  3. Jonathan Pak says:

    I believe that the use of Albert Bandura’s idea of advantageous comparison plays a role in perpetuating acts of child physical abuse and corporal punishment. In the article, Professor Kathie Malley-Morrison describes a case where the act of torture is used to avoid “the greater disasters that could hurt the innocent if torture had not been used”. The idea of justifying one’s actions by preventing a worse outcome seems logically reasonable but it is constantly being used as an excuse to get justification for such terrible actions. I can see this thought process in parents when they justify their use of physical discipline. In Family Violence in the United States, Hines and Malley-Morrison argued that abusive mothers believe that “using physical discipline is an appropriate way of rearing children and have higher expectations for their children’s behavior” (Hines & Malley-Morrison 92). The ‘great disasters’ for parents is the failure of the child to meet these expectations. In order to prevent this, the parents feel a need to use any means necessary, resorting to corporal punishment in the home. Advantageous comparison captures the idea that if the outcome is preventative of a horrible act, then a ‘less’ horrible act to achieve it is tolerated. In either the battlefield or in the home, advantageous comparison plays a role in perpetuating acts of violence because of its justification in ‘prevention’.
    I also believe that the idea of Social Exchange or Control Theory plays a role in preventing these ‘great’ disasters. In Family Violence in a Cultural Perspective, Malley-Morrison and Hines writes that “human social behavior is motivated by a minimax strategy, that is, it operates to minimize costs and maximizes benefits” (Malley-Morrison and Hines 21). On the battlefield or in the home, the extreme act of torture or spanking produces the quickest response, thereby reducing the costs needed to achieve the desired outcome. However, the lowering of costs to maximize benefits comes with a price. The maltreatment of prisoners or children in order to ‘save the innocent’ or to ‘prevent the child to fail the expectations of the parents’ is not a rational justification. In parenting, there are plenty of other alternatives than physical discipline to properly rear children. In the Microsystem of the victim, Hines and Malley-Morrison writes that “younger children, difficult temperament and behavior problems, and medical and developmental or intellectual abnormalities” are all risk factors of child physical abuse (Hines and Malley-Morrison 90). All these risk-factors show that these specific populations of children require high cost and effort from the parents. Based on the Social Exchange/Control Theory, at-risk parents don’t want to invest these high costs in child rearing and resort to physical abuse and violence. The high-cost at-risk population of the victim, the Social Exchange Theory and advantageous comparison offers insight on why parents feel justified in their use of physical discipline.
    The idea of advantageous comparison, I feel, also creates a separation from the perpetrator and the action itself. By comparing the action to something else, the guilt and responsibility is displaced. It provides a false sense of comfort because “there’s someone else worse out there”. It justifies their actions and allows future repeating of terrible acts.
    In one of the films we watched in Professor Malley-Morrison’s Family Violence class, one of the adolescents in group therapy said, “because something worse happened to me, I can do this to them.” The idea of advantageous comparison was painfully internalized into this adolescent, contributing to her own abusive actions. It was only after the counselor leading the group therapy session bridged this separation for this adolescent that the adolescent could place themselves in the situation of their victims. In the perpetrators, the justification based from the idea of advantageous comparison becomes much stronger than the empathy they have for the victims. This separation creates a barrier for the perpetrator to deal with their own trauma and contributes to the lack of remorse when committing acts of violence. Hines and Malley-Morrison also discussed the Individual/Developmental level of the parental risk factors for physical abuse was “the parents’ own childhood history of family violence” (Hines & Malley-Morrison 91). The intergenerational cycle of physical abuse becomes solidified with the combination with advantageous comparison. The trauma at-risk parents received in the past develops into the comparing factor and rationalizing variable when parents decide to physically abuse their children. In order to break the cycle of repeat physical abuse, the idea of advantageous comparison needs to be removed and new ideas and strategies need to be taken into parenting styles.

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