How to Recognize the Signals of Moral Disengagement

How do we disconnect from consciousness? What mental strategies do we use so we can act against our values yet not feel bad? To answer these questions, we need to understand that morality is intrinsic to being human. However, it's affected by maturity, culture, and our mental paths.
How to Recognize the Signals of Moral Disengagement
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 28 April, 2023

A sense of morality makes us human. Reflecting on our actions and regulating and directing them appropriately is essential for our coexistence. However, having a scale of values doesn’t ensure that we always adhere to them. In fact, we often find various ways to transgress our own and others’ rules, without feeling guilty. This is moral disengagement. In this article, we’ll talk about its signs.

Acting immorally isn’t only typical of criminals or antisocial people. Indeed, we can all exhibit moral disengagement in certain situations and contexts. For example, when we lie, are unfaithful to partners, use drugs, or leave a bar without paying the bill.

Sometimes, the underlying psychological mechanisms work so effectively that we’re not even fully aware of how harmful our actions are.

Understanding moral disengagement

Moral disengagement doesn’t signify a lack of morality. In fact, a study published in Nature Human Behavior suggests that morality is, to some degree, intrinsic to being human. The researchers found that preverbal babies who observed antisocial behavior showed signs of understanding that the aggressor’s behavior was reprehensible.

As a matter of fact, it seems that judging negatively and punishing such behaviors seems to be an evolutionary element since it favors human cooperation.

The development of moral behavior is also linked to maturity. This is because, during childhood and adolescence, the lack of brain maturation makes it difficult for us to control our impulses. Moreover, we lack the ability to foresee the consequences of our actions.

In addition, values also have a strong cultural component. Therefore, an action that, in certain places and at certain times is considered to be morally acceptable is reprehensible in other contexts. As such, we build our morality on our experiences with others and what they tell us about what should and shouldn’t be done.

However, even after completing this process and having our own scales of values, we might choose to disconnect from them. In doing so, we might break the rules and reject our own personal standards yet not feel guilty or ashamed. Nor do we exhibit the self-censorship that normally inhibits us. This is known as moral disengagement.

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Man hides his wedding ring in his pocket to flirt with a woman
Infidelity is an immoral behavior that attempts to justify the neglect of the marital relationship.

Signs of moral disengagement in the individual

It was the American psychologist, Albert Bandura, who described the process of moral disengagement. It means we disconnect our self-sanctions and convince ourselves that our actions aren’t really immoral. We achieve it through different mechanisms that rationalize or justify the facts. They change our perspectives. This exempts us from responsibility, as stated in an article written by Albert Bandura and colleagues.

So, if we’re looking for signs of moral disengagement in an individual, we must look at the degree to which they’re using such mechanisms. They’ll tend to exhibit the following beliefs and opinions:

Violence or lies are permissible in certain contexts

Broadly speaking, they’re honest and peace-loving. However, they may agree to lie to protect a friend or attack someone who’s offending one of their loved ones.

Comparison allows them to justify their actions

They know that certain behaviors aren’t acceptable. But, since there are far worse situations, they justify them or minimize their importance. For example, they claim that robbing a loaf of bread isn’t as serious as robbing a bank. Or, insulting someone isn’t as serious as beating them up. Therefore, the initial actions lose their seriousness.

Immoral behavior is acceptable if it doesn’t harm anyone

They believe that telling a little lie is fine if the other person doesn’t find out. Furthermore, they think that borrowing someone’s possessions without their permission is acceptable, as long as it doesn’t do them any major harm.

Some people deserve to be treated badly

Theoretically, they understand that harming someone is wrong. Yet, they consider that certain people deserve it. For example, they might believe that a child needs to be beaten to learn. Or, that a husband or wife who doesn’t take care of their relationship deserves that their partner is unfaithful. They might also believe that criminals have lost their right to be treated with dignity.

It’s not always the fault of the individual who acts badly

In their opinion, the individual who acts badly isn’t always responsible for their actions. For example, they believe that if a child is aggressive, the responsibility lies with their parents and teachers who’ve failed to educate them. Or, if an employee consciously commits fraud, the person responsible is the superior who allowed it. And, if a person is a victim of a robbery, it’s their fault for not taking care of their belongings.

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When people act as a group, they’re not individually responsible

These kinds of individuals believe that people aren’t responsible for reprehensible acts that are committed in a group. For example, if several teenagers vandalize a car or if they participate in an act of bullying, they’re not personally to blame, as they were merely succumbing to peer pressure.

Some immoral behaviors are of little importance

Finally, those who exhibit moral disengagement believe that, while certain acts are negative, they’re of little importance. For instance, they don’t take making fun of someone in a humorous way too seriously.

Child with bad behavior annoys another
When a child is badly behaved, an individual who exhibits moral disengagement will hold the parents responsible for inappropriate parenting.

How to identify signs of moral disengagement and take action

These signs of moral disengagement are collated in the Mechanisms of Moral Disengagement scale (MMDS). Bandura developed this standardized instrument. It measures the degree to which people present these mechanisms. In fact, we’re all guilty of this kind of behavior at some point.

Indeed, rationalizing or justifying our actions, minimizing their importance, or evading responsibility are common ways of avoiding the feelings of guilt derived from transgressing the rules. In addition, there are certain factors that influence the appearance of these mechanisms. For example, when we’re subjected to group pressure. This makes us more likely to commit immoral acts and use moral disengagement to alleviate our guilt so we can move on.

However, we should remain alert and know how to recognize if we start to exhibit any of these signs. Moral disengagement disconnection doesn’t suddenly happen. It occurs gradually. In fact, the more we justify our dubious acts, the more they become increasingly comfortable and natural.

Therefore, we need to ensure we’re aware of how these processes operate, and not allow them to take control of our behavior. As a matter of fact, the self-censorship that we turn off when we resort to moral disengagement is precisely what makes us empathetic. Moreover, it helps us exhibit the kinds of prosocial behaviors that we all so badly need to live in harmony.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.