The Psychology of Moral Disengagement

Moral disengagement is a process of cognitive restructuring that allows individuals to disassociate from their internal moral standards and behave unethically without feeling distressed. It is the story we tell ourselves to not feel bad about inhumane actions that normally would go against our moral principles, or the excuses we find to avoid feeling guilty about hurting others. 

the full story
01 Moral Disengagement

If we do something bad, we typically feel guilty about it. Moral disengagement allows us to misbehave, and continue to feel good about ourselves, convinced that our own moral standards don’t apply to us.  This psychological phenomenon comes in 8 forms. To learn about them, meet Sarah, a 16-year-old who was bullied in school. When the teacher confronts those responsible, they each use one type of moral disengagement to explain themselves. 

Moral justification
02 Moral Disengagement

Martin is the first to respond. He says: “I was just trying to toughen her up. The world’s a harsh place, and if she can’t take a little teasing, how is she going to survive?” He uses moral justification to frame his behavior as a sort of public service.

Euphemistic Labeling
03 Moral Disengagement

Eric says: “We were just joking around with her. It’s not a big deal.” Calling bullying “joking around,” makes it sound more benign than it is, which is why that’s called euphemistic labeling.

advantageous comparison
04 Moral Disengagement

Anna says: “Other kids out there are stealing! We were just having fun.” By contrasting her behavior with things she considers worse, she makes her own actions appear fine. Anna employs advantageous comparison.

displacement of responsibility
05 Moral Disengagement

Debora is next: “It’s not my fault, the others made me do it!” she says. She plays the victim, claiming that she was just following orders. This is called displacement of responsibility.

diffusing responsibility
06 Moral Disengagement

Daniel is outraged. “Why am I being singled out? I’m not the only one! Everyone was doing it!” By pointing to the others involved, he’s minimizing his role and thereby diffusing responsibility.

disregarding consequences
07 Moral Disengagement

Samuel does not see a problem. “She is exaggerating, it’s not like we are monsters who eat people alive.” Samuel tries to reduce his guilt, by downplaying Sarah’s feelings and disregarding consequences.

08 Moral Disengagement

Hector turns to dehumanization when he says: “She’s a weirdo, and belongs in a zoo!” He implies that Sarah is an animal, and hence less worthy of respect and empathy.

attribution of blame
09 Moral Disengagement

Antony laughs. “If she didn’t want to be made fun of she should not act so strange. It’s her fault. Do you see what she wears to school?” Antony is accusing Sarah, portraying his actions only as reactive — that’s called attribution of blame.

enforcing accountability
10 Moral Disengagement

The teacher realizes what’s going on, he tells each one personally that he does not tolerate such behavior in his class, suspends the 8 bullies for a week, and gives them homework for them to reflect on their lame justifications. The next week in class, he presents the 8 principles and explains how moral disengagement can lead to an increase in violence and a reduction in empathy.

bandura’s insight
11 Moral Disengagement

The theory was developed by Albert Bandura, a psychologist best known for his work on the social learning theory. On moral disengagement, he wrote: “Most people have standards against which they evaluate the morality of their actions. However, such self-sanctions do not operate unless they are activated.”

what do you think?
12 Moral Disengagement

What about you? Have you ever used moral disengagement to justify bad behavior? And do you think kids at schools would benefit from learning about it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Dig deeper!

Classroom activity

In the following activity students are going to learn about moral disengagement and the consequences it can have

  • Show the students this clip of the movie “Joker” and ask them how Joker justifies killing 3 wall street guys. 
  • Show students this scene of “Whiplash” where Fletcher justifies abusing students because he wants to push musicians to be great 
  • Show students this scene of Avengers Infinity War about how Thanos justifies his plans
  • Show the class Sprouts’ video on Moral Disengagement 
  • Ask students if they ever justified being violent or doing harm unto others
  • Ask the class if they think these principles can apply to their own experiences in school 
  • Ask students if these principles can also be applied on a larger scale with large scale conflicts. 
  • Show the students the defense used during the Nuremberg Trials and ask them to compare it with the 8 mechanisms of Moral Disengagement. 


  • Script: Ludovico Saint Amour di Chanaz and Jonas Koblin
  • Artist: Pascal Gaggelli
  • Voice: Matt Abbott
  • Coloring: Nalin
  • Editing: Peera Lertsukittipongsa
  • Production: Selina Bador
  • Sound Design: Miguel Ojeda

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