Morality in Bullying: What is Right and What is Wrong? (page 2)

By — Bullying Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Apr 26, 2010

Moral Disengagement

Studying the concept of self-justification processes enabling to avoid feeling guilty, Bandura (4) identified psychological processes that contribute to selectively deactivate the internal moral controls. Such moral disengagement mechanisms can act on three factors:

  • the reconstruction of the behavior itself (for instance by contrasting a self-deplored act with worse conducts)
  • the agentive role in the harm one causes (for instance by displacing the responsibility of the action on others)
  • the recipients of detrimental acts (for instance by stripping them of human qualities).

Some studies showed that bullying is related to morally disengaging (7). In a research project involving 581 children (8-11 years old), in comparison to peers, bullies showed a greater tendency to use mechanisms of moral disengagement, whereas defending the victimized peers was related to lower levels of moral disengagement (8).

When rule comprehension and moral disengagement processes were considered together in a single sample (9), the two dimensions of morality emerged as differently influential on bullying behavior in different age-groups. In this study the researchers made the following findings:

  • Among children (9-11 years old) bullying others was more likely to occur when children have an immature perception of rules as social-conventional
  • Among children (9-11 years old) anti-social behavior probably expresses a wrong perception of the moral rule as changeable and depending on an authority or an adult that can allow its transgression
  • Children’s conception of the rule is probably related to a weaker interiorization of the rule and, consequently, to less intense guilt feelings when the rule is broken by the child. Therefore, the child does not need to morally disengage when breaking the rule
  • Among early adolescents (11-15 years old), morally disengaging, and not the comprehension of the rules, appeared to make bullying behavior easier

How can we empower anti-bullying morality?

Overall, these research outcomes show the value that anti-bullying programs focus more on child’s morality. We can empower anti-bullying morality in the following ways:

  • Child interventions and education should promote a mature perception and interiorization of moral rules as universal, valid in each context and by themselves, and independent of authorities’ dictates.
  • Adolescent programs should focus on mitigating the effect of self-justifying mechanisms, thus weakening the association between moral disengagement and bullying.
  • Parents and teachers are encouraged to make efforts addressing these distortions in morality, in order to favor youth’s moral engagement, while avoiding egocentric reasoning or deresponsabilization.
  • School-based educational programs empowering both emotional and moral competence may be useful in enhancing pupils’ morality and preventing harmful behaviors such as bullying.


1.        Hymel, S., Schonert-Reichl, K.A., Bonanno, R.A., Vaillancourt, T., & Rocke Henderson, N. (2010). Bullying and morality. Understanding how good kids can behave badly. In S.R. Jimerson, S.M. Swearer, D.L. Espelage (Eds.), Handbook of bullying in schools. An international perspective (pp. 101-118). New York: Routledge.

2.        Turiel, E. (1998). Moral development. In W. Damon & N. Eisenberg (Eds.), Handbook of Child Psychology: Vol. 3. Social, Emotional, and Personality Development 5th ed. (pp. 863-932). New York: Wiley.

3.        Harpur, T.J., Hakstian, A. R., & Hare, R. D. (1988). Factor structure of the psychopathy checklist. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56, 741-747.

4.        Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundation of thought and action. A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

5.        Smetana, J. G., & Braeges, J. (1990). The development of toddlers’ moral and conventional judgements. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 36, 329-346.

6.        Caravita, S. C. S., Miragoli, S., & Di Blasio, P. (2009). Why should I behave in this way? Rule discrimination within the school context related to bullying. In L. R. Elling (Ed.), Social Development (pp. 269-290). New York: Nova Science Publishers.

7.        Menesini, E., Sanchez, V., Fonzi, A., Ortega, R., Costabile, A., & Lo Feudo, G. (2003). Moral emotions and bullying: A cross-national comparison of differences between bullies, victims and outsiders. Aggressive Behavior, 29, 515-530.

8.        Gini, G. (2006). Social Cognition and Moral Cognition in Bullying: What’s Wrong?. Aggressive Behavior, 32, 528–539.

9.        Caravita, S. C. S., & Gini, G. (2010, March). Rule Perception or Moral Disengagement? Associations of Moral Cognition With Bullying and Defending in adolescence. In D. Strohmeier, S. C. S. Caravita (Chairs), Moral Development and Adolescent's Aggressive and Prosocial Behaviour Symposium conducted at SRA 2010 Biennal Meeting, Philadelphia (U.S.A.).


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