If we think back to historical moments such as WWII, it is possible to reflect on how it is possible that so many soldiers and citizens engaged in certain behaviors that could qualify as war crimes and against humanity. , such as those perpetrated in concentration camps. The same doubt can arise in contexts such as domestic or sexual violence, or in less dramatic contexts such as subjects who commit theft or fraud. And we don’t need to move into areas related to illegality: we can also ask ourselves, for example, how it is possible that people who value loyalty above all else become unfaithful.
There are many attempts to explain how people who, in general, would not or should not adopt these behaviors, and others who go against their principles, have come to realize them. One of the theories proposed is lto Bandura’s moral disconnection theory, Which we will briefly review in this article.
The theory of moral disconnection: basic principles
Bandura’s theory of moral disconnection proposes that during our evolution and development, behavior is socially reinforced or punished by the application of different procedures, a regulation that we internalize over time through socialization. Gradually, we acquire and develop a sense of ethics and morality, regulating our behavior according to the values that are established in our way of being. Thus, we tend to behave in a manner consistent with the rules of behavior that we have internalized, self-regulating.
However, it is sometimes possible for people to perform acts contrary to these internalized values and norms (for reasons of convenience, conformity or survival, among other possible reasons), which usually causes a dissonance between our action and our thinking. This will generate an increase in internal tension and appearance of subjective discomfort before own action, when moral conflict arises.
In these cases, and especially when the transgression is a strong break with our beliefs and our values, it is common for what Bandura calls a selective moral disconnect to occur, By using different defensive mechanisms that allow to try to legitimize his own acts despite going against his moral system, by deactivating self-regulation and moral censorship until transforming these elements into something irrelevant and justifiable for the own person.
This disconnection occurs gradually, so that they gradually disappear accept more and more behaviors that at the beginning would be considered unacceptable, absurd, cruel or even criminals. Thus, the self-concept is protected and the usual process of self-regulation does not arise when different defensive mechanisms are applied.
This theory is based on the conception that the interaction between behavior and thought is deeply influenced by environmental, personal and behavioral factors, with morale also being affected by the influence of cognition, emotions and social interactions. Bandura’s moral disconnection theory, as we saw in the introduction, is applicable in all kinds of situations: from the simplest or trivial war crimes to major war crimes. Obviously, the more severe the division between conduct and moral conduct, the greater the difficulty to employ and the more intensely it is necessary to apply defensive mechanisms that prevent the destruction of ego and self-concept.
Four main levels
The theory of moral disconnection proposes that this disconnection can occur at different domains or levels, depending on where it is located or the aspect in which the mechanisms employed in themselves operate. In this way, we can find four main areas.
1. Driving place
This domain refers to the set of processes in which the element on which the modification is made is the behavior in question. The acts are reinterpreted through different mechanisms, which reduces their gravity.
2. Place of action
In this case, the moment when the subject introduces modifications to reduce the cognitive distortion generated by his actions is his own level of personal responsibility as perceived by him, Reduce this on the basis of specific mechanisms.
3. Place of result
The main turning point in the place of result is precisely the results of the action. It is based on reduce the importance and seriousness of the facts and their consequences, or ignore.
4. Locus of the receiver of the shares
Here the goal or mechanism for avoiding discomfort is to seek an explanation for the behavior of the victim or recipient of the immoral acts. mostly it is based on blaming the other or reducing their worth as a human being.
Bandura’s theory of moral disconnection postulates that human beings use different cognitive-type mechanisms to justify their behavior when it is contrary to their moral and ethical principles. More precisely, eight major mechanisms are proposed, these being the following.
1. Moral justification
Defensive mechanism of moral disconnection in which an accomplished behavior contrary to the values and beliefs of the subject is defended as a means used to achieve a worthy and superior goal, which justifies the acts committed. He reinterprets reality in a positive way in such a way that the immoral act becomes in fact laudable in the eyes of its author. It is one of the mechanisms that would lie in the realm of locus of conduct, and its presence in the military and terrorism is common. This is typical of the place of driving.
2. Euphemistic language
Modality of the defensive mechanism in which the intensity and severity of immoral behavior is reduced or distorted by language, Speaking in such a way as to lose its harmful character. In other words, assign neutral names to immoral actions. It is also part of the driving locus.
3. Liability shift
A mechanism widely used today, it is about attributing all or a large part of the responsibility for one’s own actions to other people or situations. In many cases, this person has a certain position of superiority on the matter. Chance, time and place or another subject can serve as an element to which to transfer responsibility for acts.
It is generally used in the workplace, but also in other more dramatic situations. One phrase that would sum up part of this concept is “just follow orders.” It is based on attributing blame to others, which would place it as a typical locus of action mechanism.
4. Dissemination of responsibility
Similar to the above mechanism, which in this case instead of being attributed to a single person takes on a slight share of guilt at the same time as it spreads and spreads to all members of a group or collective. This way, individual responsibility is mitigated by sharing the blame among all, Or disappears directly. Part of the place of action, in which the guilt of the facts is interpreted and reassigned.
5. Minimization of consequences
Defensive mechanism focused on the consideration that the consequences of amoral actions are less serious than they actually are. It means to distort or to regard as false or exaggerated for the purpose of the conduct performed. “That won’t mean that.” The domain of which this mechanism would belong is the place of result.
6. Advantageous comparison
This defensive mechanism consists mainly of making comparisons between one’s own behavior and one considered much worse, so by comparison the first does not seem so serious. The typical expression “… but I didn’t kill anyone” would be a simple example of this comparison. It is also common to use as an excuse to do the immoral act that another or others have done something worse for us. Own the place of driving, when reinterpreting the facts on the basis of this comparison.
Defensive mechanism generally used in the face of guilt facing the consequences of one’s actions on other people, these actions being generally of great gravity. It is based on removing humanity from those affected, reducing consideration for them as beings and removing importance from their lives. This results in a decrease in the level of empathy towards them, facilitating the reduction or even eliminating the feeling of discomfort associated with the damage caused. Many acts of war and crimes are justified by this means, the mechanism being used depending on the location of the recipient of the actions.
8. Admission of guilt
Similar to the transfer of responsibility and dehumanization, it is based on the responsibility of the victim primarily of the subject who committed the amoral act. “He would be sought / provoked” is a typical phrase that sums up this mechanism. The behavior itself is considered a normal reaction, derived or mitigated by the situation and the consideration that the other deserved such treatment. Ill-treatment and violations are some of the contexts in which this mechanism has been used, typical of the location of the recipient of the actions.
- Bandura, A. (1999). Moral detachment in the commission of inhumanity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3 (3), 193-209.
- Bandura, A. (2006). Moral detachment mechanisms in support of military force. The impact of September 11. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 25 (2), 141-165.
- Rubio, F. (2016). Moral disconnection and violence in adolescent and youth court complaints. Doctoral thesis. A D.
- Obermann, ML (2011). Moral disengagement from self-reported school bullying and peer appointment. Aggressive behavior, 37, 133-144.