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Understanding Moral Disengagement and its Impact on Decision-Making.

Dr. Lisa M. Coffey

August 2022

Key Words: Moral Disengagement, decision-making, moral justification, advantageous comparison, minimizing consequences, attributing blame to others, dehumanizing the victim, euphemistic labeling, displacement of responsibility, and diffusion of responsibility


Some years ago, I conducted a research study on Moral Disengagement. As I watch the daily news, I hear story after story that involves increased levels of moral disengagement, and I engage in discussions with others who do not understand the decision-making process of others. How can someone become a mass murderer? Why would someone drink and drive? How could she engage in cyberbullying that led to the victims' suicide? Why would someone under the influence walk across a four-lane highway? How do we rationalize these behaviors? All of these questions can be answered by understanding the mechanisms of Moral Disengagement.


Moral Disengagement (MD) is a self-governing process that allows individuals to rationalize conduct. The actors use MD to explain negative consequences, marginalize targets of transgressive acts, and minimize the harm. MD is not a new concept. Parents, professors, lawyers, politicians, athletes, and people generally use moral disengagement mechanisms in everyday life to justify behaviors. MD practices are prevalent in death penalty cases, military conduct, Ponzi schemes, leadership, mass murders, and acts of oppression.

Individuals disengage by using eight mechanisms proposed by Albert Bandura: moral justification, advantageous comparison, minimizing consequences, attributing blame to others, dehumanizing the victim, euphemistic labeling, displacement of responsibility, and diffusion of responsibility to avoid any feelings of guilt. One or more of the eight mechanisms justify destructive behaviors. MD is closely associated with rule transgressions and flawed decision-making. Today’s decision impacts tomorrow.

Eight Mechanisms

  1. Moral justification is the act of making antisocial behaviors acceptable. An example of this in the decision-making process is speeding on the turnpike because everyone else is, and you have to keep up with the traffic flow.

  2. Advantageous comparison is when an immoral act is compared to something objectionable, making the original action seem less harmful. An example of this in decision-making is deciding to send an inflammatory text message or trash talking, which is much better than physical violence.

  3. Minimizing/ignoring consequences is the process of ignoring the consequences of actions. An example of this in the decision-making process is eating a donut as a person with type 2 diabetes and ignoring the fact that my glucose levels will rise. After all, it's just one donut.

  4. Attribution of blame occurs when the actor does not find fault in their behavior and blames others. For example, I would not have lost my money in the casino if you did not invite me to tag along.

  5. The act of dehumanization disregards the victims' feelings, emotions, and well-being and is the most severe form of MD. The victimization in dehumanization is detrimental. There are various examples to cite in this area: newsworthy racial injustices associated with the Black Lives Matter Movement, sex trafficking of minors, grueling labor practices in manufacturing plants, gun violence, mass murders, and the Capitol Building insurrection, to name a few. Dehumanization factors into the decision-making process that allows these infractions to occur.

  6. Euphemistic labeling is the act of changing the message's context to something less harmful and a linguist tool that sanitizes the actions. Specifically, when athletes engage in incivility, John McEnroe breaks his tennis racket or Odell Beckem Jr's Sideline antics. Instead, those behaviors are often dismissed as frustration or letting off steam.

  7. In the displacement of responsibility mechanism, the actor feels that behaviors result from social pressures from an authority figure rather than from one's actions. Therefore, the actor shifts the responsibility to someone in authority "It's not my fault." When we can change the responsibility to an authority figure, we have the freedom to make wayward decisions because we are following orders. The example that comes to mind is a scene in the Karate Kid, a martial art movie released in 1984. In the background, the master instructed his student to break his opponent's leg. The student did the instruction without apprehension because he was following orders.

  8. The diffusion of responsibility is a shift toward group behavior rather than individual action. A typical example is witnessing inappropriate workplace behavior, but you fail to speak up because you assume another person will. On the other hand, failure to report allows the infractions to continue, impacting everyone in the workplace. Examples include theft, racism, sexism, overextending breaks, abuse of policies, etc.

There are many other examples of MD in action with varying degrees of severity. Our moral compass allows us to make good, bad, or indifferent decisions. Understanding these concepts can also help us understand the complex free, will world in which we live.


After understanding MD mechanisms, can you see how MD impacts our decision-making? MD influences everyday decisions like speeding, responses to text messages, diet choices, or how we let off steam. MD also applies to the decisions made on sensitive and objectionable behaviors such as violence, racism, Ponzi schemes, cheating, murder, and more. The higher degree of MD, the likelihood exists of wrong decisions with the expectation that the consequences are irrelevant.

Key Takeaways:

This article aims to bring awareness to the eight mechanisms of MD. Absorbing these concepts will help you in your decision-making processes. Reflect on a few times when one of the eight mechanisms justified your choices, and after this lesson, would you make the same decision?

(C) Copyright 2022, Dr.Lisa M. Coffey. All rights reserved.



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