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Bullying and Moral Disengagement

September 30, 2013

By TLC Guest Blogger Mary McHenry, MSW

October is National Bullying Prevention Month. Please take some time to explore websites such as,  where they state, “We have a variety of resources you can use during October — and throughout the year — to engage, educate and inspire others to join the movement and prevent bullying where you live.” Of significance in this quote is “throughout the year.” We rise to the occasion when there is a month dedicated to a cause, or we are impacted by an incident that stirs us and prompts us to take action. Unfortunately we can forget about it later.

The sad reality is that bullying, whether it is overt or covert, is thriving like a disease we have no cure for and is responsible for trauma reactions in many children. Despite our efforts to prevent bullying, there are many who still accept it, saying things like, “There are always going to be bullies.” Further, many parents teach their children to “fight back,” providing a rationalization for the immoral conduct of fighting. What is significant to this discussion is the fact that teaching children to fight back is promoting just what the bully does; rationalizing the act as being justified, dehumanizing and blaming another so as to act unjustly, diffusing responsibility, and justifying behavior we know is morally wrong by convincing ourselves that in this case, it is OK. The process I described above is what many feel is at the root of understanding bullying; moral disengagement. (Hymel, et al 2005)

Moral disengagement is a socio-cognitive process by which people will rationalize or convince themselves that questionable behaviors are acceptable, despite the fact that when examined, the behavior is actually bad from a moral standpoint. (Bandura 2002)  Although we operate as a society within the structure of a moral code, “good” people can do “bad” things and can do so with a clear conscience. This is through a process of moral disengagement, including the process of cognitive restructuring, where we can convince ourselves that harmful conduct is OK using a “moral justification” or identifying a perceived greater good. The act of dehumanizing and/or blaming the victim is also prevalent when we can leave the morality of society and act “badly” toward another. (Bandura, 1991)

So for a moment, I would like to look at us, the adults. Have you ever told a white lie? Have you supported the need for military action despite the killing of innocent people? Have you ever cheated on your tax return? I’m sure you can add to these examples and while you consider these, I suspect you are rationalizing why you did what you did.  That is moral disengagement, perhaps in it’s minor forms, but it is what bullies do so they can be a bully. Understanding and accepting that we are capable of moral disengagement can help us understand and help the bully, along with the bystanders and those who are bullied.

According to Bandura (2002) “Initially, individuals perform mildly harmful acts they can tolerate with some discomfort. After their self-reproof has been diminished through repeated enactments, the level of ruthlessness increases, until eventually acts originally regarded as abhorrent can be performed with little anguish or self-censure. Inhumane practices become thoughtlessly routinized.” If we accept that moral disengagement is a gradual process, we must recognize the importance of providing early intervention to prevent moral disengagement from really taking hold.

It is clear that early bullying prevention is critical, and careful consideration must be given to developing strategies that challenge morally disengaged behaviors.  Peer groups, parents, teachers, counselors and society as a whole must be prepared to challenge these behaviors at the outset, not accept, rationalize or ignore. (Hymel, et al 2005) Looking at ourselves and how we behave must also be considered.  When we look at bullies and wonder how they can do what they do, we must remember moral disengagement is a human response that we are capable of as well.

Take a look at this 2012, Dateline report entitled “My Kid Would never Bully”:

Despite having a strong understanding of bullying and knowing it is wrong, we see how easy it is to be a bystander, do nothing to help, and justify the lack of support for the victim. Although the bullying epidemic is complicated, it appears to me that understanding moral disengagement is an important piece of the puzzle. I hope you will explore this further as I plan to.

Bandura, A. 2002. “Selective moral disengagement in the exercise of moral agency.” Journal of Moral Education, 31: 101-119.

Bandura, A. (1991). Social cognitive theory of moral thought and action. In W.M. Kurtines & L. Gewirtz (Eds.), Handbook of moral behavior and development (Vol. 1, pp 45-103). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Hymel, Shelley, Natalie Rocke-Henderson, and Rina A. Bonanno. “Moral Disengagement: A Framework For Understanding Bullying Among Adolescents.” Journal of Social Sciences .8 (2005):1-11.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Mitch Lesperance MSW RSW permalink
    October 1, 2013 2:48 pm

    Great work Mary. Thanks for this information.
    Mr. Mitch
    London, ON

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