Bullying behavior is an immoral action, because it is in contrast with children’s right of not being humiliated and oppressed. For this reason, an important area of research to understand and tackle this phenomenon deals with the relation between bullying and morality (1).

Morality can be conceived as the ability to decide on wrong and right issues within social relationships, and to behave accordingly, mostly with reference to the system of rules regulating the social interactions within communities. Along with morality, guilt also plays a major role in behavioral regulation (2). Individuals who are more prone to guilt are less aggressive and less likely to act out behaviors (3). In contrast, having lower feelings of guilt could ‘enable’ individuals to act aggressively. Thus, children who bully their peers might either have distortions in morality and perceive moral rules preserving from harming others as more breakable than their peers do, or be able to self-justify to avoid feelings of guilt.

Morality and Bullying

When looking at the structure of morality, the main ones refer to both of the following components:

  • how the child comprehend the moral norms and evaluate transgressive behavior as acceptable or not acceptable (2)
  • mechanisms of self-justification, namely moral disengagement, that allow the individual to act in an aggressive way without feeling guilty (4)

Comprehension of Moral Rules

With reference to comprehension of rules, researchers state the existence of different kinds of rules: (a) moral rules, aimed at preserving from deliberate harm (such as, bullying), and (b) social-conventional rules, aimed at preserving the social order. Unlike the social-conventional rules, moral rules are perceived even by children as having the following characteristics(2):

  • always valid
  • independent of authorities or context
  • non-changeable

As a consequence of these rule characteristics, young children perceive the transgression of social-conventional rules as more acceptable than the transgression of moral ones (5). 

In a study (6) of 129 children (7–10 years old) and 182 early adolescents (11–15 years old) were presented with some hypothetic situations in which explicit moral and social-conventional school-rules were broken by a child. An example of a moral rule is the school-rule forbidding to push and hit school-mates, while a social-conventional school-rule is the rule forbidding to call a teacher by first name. By asking the children to answer some questions on the acceptability of the hypothetic rule-transgressions, their perception of rules was evaluated. In this study, at a higher level than their peers did bullies considered the breaking of school-rules as possible when the following occurred:

  • It was allowed by the context-authorities such as teachers and head-teachers
  • It happened out of the school and out of the context in which the rule was explicitly stated.

Overall, in comparison to peers, bullying youth revealed a less-mature conception of the rules, also moral rules, as breakable under some conditions.

However, in this study adolescent bullies evaluated transgressions as more acceptable than their peers did only when the obligation was social-conventional. Therefore, this leads us to think that the following could be true:

  • Even if bullies have some difficulties in recognizing the intrinsic values of rules, they seem to understand that the transgression of moral rules is wrong.
  • A gap appears between bullies’ evaluation of non-acceptability of the moral transgressions, and their actual bullying behavior that breaks the moral rule forbidding to harm others.

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.).