Moral disengagement is the conditional endorsement of transgressive behavior through the use of any of eight psychosocial mechanisms and is apparent in sport when players rationalize harmful behaviors such as injuring or deliberately fouling opponents. The eight mechanisms of moral disengagement operate by minimizing or eliminating unpleasant emotional reactions (e.g., guilt, shame) normally associated with transgressive acts, therefore promoting such behavior. The following section of this entry defines the eight mechanisms of moral disengagement and provides sport examples. The discussion then turns to how mechanisms can also be used together and how progressive increases in moral disengagement may lead to increases in the gratuitousness of harmful behavior.
Mechanisms of Moral Disengagement
Within his social cognitive theory (SCT) of moral thought and action, Albert Bandura outlined eight mechanisms of moral disengagement. The eight mechanisms are moral justification, euphemistic labeling, advantageous comparison, displacement of responsibility, diffusion of responsibility,distortion of consequences, dehumanization, and attribution of blame. All mechanisms have been evidenced in sport, and definitions and examples from sport are provided in the subsections that follow.
This mechanism operates when culpable behavior is cognitively reinterpreted so that it is considered justifiable both personally and socially. This cognitive reconstrual centers on the purpose of the behavior, portraying it as achieving a valued social or moral purpose. When acting under moral justification, people follow social or moral imperatives based upon valued purposes. In nonsport contexts, detrimental conduct is morally justified by serving both social (e.g., honor and reputation) and moral (e.g., religious beliefs) functions. However, in sport, moral justification largely occurs when harmful behavior is seen to facilitate achievement of valued social outcomes. An example of this is when a soccer player breaks the rules of the game to score and considers this acceptable because it helps the team win.
Capitalizing on people’s ability to use language to reshape their thought patterns and associated emotions, euphemistic labeling uses selective language to cognitively disguise the harmfulness of culpable activities or bestow a respectable status on them. In doing so, one avoids the negative emotions (e.g., shame, guilt) that are normally associated with detrimental conduct. In sport, euphemistic labeling can involve the use of softening language to make behaviors appear less harmful or obscuring linguistics to hide the true meaning of an act. An example of using softening language in sport is when an athlete using performance-enhancing drugs refers to them as “juice” and of obscuring linguistics is when players talk of “bending the rules” when they really break them or “letting off steam” when in fact they are acting aggressively.
Advantageous comparison occurs when a harmful act is compared to another behavior considered more harmful. In doing so, it is possible to diminish the perceived seriousness of the less harmful act through exploitation of the contrast principle.
The contrast principle describes how seeing two things in sequence that are different from one another leads to the tendency to see the second one as more different from the first than it is in reality. Thus, by comparing a particular detrimental act to a more harmful behavior, one can lessen the perceived harm caused by the perpetrated act. Importantly, the more divergent the characteristics of the two behaviors compared, the greater the reduction in the perceived harm. An example of advantageous comparison in sport is when use of abusive language is compared to physically injuring an opponent.
Displacement of Responsibility
Displacement of responsibility occurs when people committing harmful acts consider their actions to originate either from the directives of another person or to be imposed by the situation. In such circumstances, people are unlikely to experience deterrent emotions because personal accountability for action and/or its detrimental consequences is diminished or eliminated. An example of displacement of responsibility to another person in sport is when players say they have been told to break the rules by their coach. The legitimacy of the person authorizing detrimental acts is a key social factor determining the ease with which people displace responsibility to others. As such, authority figures such as coaches are ideally placed to facilitate transgressive behavior in sport through this mechanism. Displacement of responsibility to the situation is illustrated by a player’s saying she had to take the law into her own hands because the officials were failing to do their jobs correctly.
Diffusion of Responsibility
Personal accountability for harmful actions and their consequences can also be minimized through diffusion of responsibility. There are three primary means through which this mechanism can operate: division of labor, group decision making (DM), and collective action. Division of labor occurs when individual members of a group carry out separate acts that are harmless in isolation, but when combined have detrimental consequences for others. This form of diffusion of responsibility is more often seen in organization settings in which harmful processes can more easily be separated into apparently harmless subcomponents. In contrast, group DM is more suited to sport and occurs when a group collectively takes the decision to engage in injurious conduct. For example, a team may jointly decide to use illegal tactics in an upcoming match during a team meeting. In such situations, no individual takes responsibility for the decisions made by the group, instead externalizing the decision to others in the group. Similarly, diffusion of responsibility can also operate in sport through collective action, whereby people engage in harmful behavior as a group, and thereby obfuscate personal responsibility for any harm caused. This is seen in sport when teams collectively use aggressive tactics to gain competitive advantage.
Distortion of Consequences
This mechanism occurs when the detrimental consequences of harmful conduct are ignored, minimized, distorted, or disbelieved. By either avoiding or minimizing the harm caused by one’s actions, it is possible to prevent vicariously aroused emotions that are normally experienced when harm is inflicted on others. Distortion of consequences can occur through selective inattention, cognitive distortion, or by actively discrediting evidence of any harm caused. Selective inattention is seen in sport when a player actively avoids finding out the extent of injuries to another player resulting from his actions. Alternatively, if it was not possible to avoid such information, the player could convince himself the harm caused was not as bad as it appeared (i.e., cognitive distortion) or actively discredit the evidence presented by describing situations in which players recovered very quickly from similar injuries.
The emotional reactions experienced as a result of detrimental conduct are dependent in part on how perpetrators view their victims. Similarity between perpetrator and victim heightens empathic or vicarious emotional responses and therefore deters future detrimental conduct due to associated unpleasant emotions. Dehumanization prevents such reactions by either divesting victims of human qualities (e.g., describing an opponent as a savage) or by attributing animalistic qualities to them (e.g., calling an opponent a dog); both forms of dehumanization decrease the perceived similarity between perpetrators and victims, thereby decreasing feelings of empathy toward victims. Practices that separate people into ingroup and outgroup members facilitate dehumanization through social separation. Team sports are particularly susceptible to this, as depersonalized opponents (i.e., outgroup members) are more easily deprived of human qualities.
Attribution of Blame
Attribution of blame occurs when a person feels caused to transgress against another due to forceful provocation by the victim or by compelling circumstances. As a result, perpetrators consider themselves victims of circumstance rather than being culpable for their actions. This mechanism is often used when an isolated incident from a series of reciprocal acts is cited as the reason for a provoked defensive reaction. Thus, a player who has had a series of altercations with an opponent may suggest one particular foul by her opponent forced her to foul her opponent as a defensive reaction.
Combining Mechanisms of Moral Disengagement
The interrelatedness of the eight mechanisms determines that the practical application of moral disengagement can involve the combined use of more than one mechanism. Importantly, the combined use of mechanisms can increase the overall effect in comparison to that of the sum of the effects when the mechanisms are used in isolation. This suggests emotional self-regulation may be most effectively obfuscated by combining different mechanisms. For example, two mechanisms that can be used in conjunction with one another are moral justification and attribution of blame. An example of this in sport is when a player fouls an opponent and declares she acted in retaliation for an earlier foul by her victim on one of her teammates. In this scenario, the perpetrator could attribute blame to her victim by declaring the foul was a response to the earlier foul by her victim. She could also morally justify the act by suggesting she acted to defend her teammate’s honor, thereby serving a valued social purpose.
Progressive Moral Disengagement
People’s use of moral disengagement is thought to develop gradually, resulting in a gradual shift in the harmfulness of behavior, rather than imparting rapid changes in its gratuitousness. Initially, people engage in relatively minor transgressions that they can easily endorse through use of one or more ofthe eight mechanisms. As an individual’s adeptness in using the eight mechanisms increases, conditional endorsement of more harmful acts occurs. This gradual development of moral disengagement is thought to continue for as long as the harmful acts serve one’s self-interests or are considered profitable. This process is subtle in that people are not necessarily aware of the changes occurring to their moral cognitions and behavior, eventually resulting in people engaging in reprehensible acts that at one time they would have considered repugnant. Such a process has been seen in doping scandals in professional cycling, where riders join a new team only to find subsequently that participation in a doping program is expected of them. Such athletes often report initially resisting or agreeing only to use certain substances at low dosages. However, over time they gradually develop the ability to justify engagement in the full doping program, ultimately taking substances and dosages that at one time they would never have considered. This gradual development of moral disengagement in parallel with the level of engagement in the transgressive act allows athletes in such situations to progress their use of performance enhancing drugs without experiencing emotions such as guilt or shame that may deter progressive engagement in doping practices.
Moral disengagement involves the conditional endorsement of transgressive behavior using any of eight psychosocial mechanisms. Given that the social nature of sport provides the necessary conditions for all eight mechanisms, it is important to understand the etiology and definitions for the eight mechanisms so their use can be identified and actively discouraged. As well as understanding the nature of the eight individual mechanisms, it is also important to recognize their combined use may be particularly harmful, and how over time progressive moral disengagement may lead to engagement in more reprehensible acts.
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