Moral Disengagement

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.

Moral Justification

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.

Euphemistic Labeling

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

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.


  1. Bandura, A. (1991). Social cognitive theory of moral thought and action. In W. M. Kurtines & J. L. Gewirtz(Eds.), Handbook of moral behavior and development: Theory, research, and applications (Vol. 1,pp. 71–129). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. Bandura, A. (2002). Selective moral disengagement in theexercise of moral agency. Journal of Moral Education,31, 101–119.
  2. Boardley, I. D., & Grix, J. (in press). Doping in bodybuilders: A qualitative investigation of facilitative psychosocial processes. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise, & Health.
  3. Boardley, I. D., & Jackson, B. (2012). When teammates are viewed as rivals: A cross-national investigation of achievement goals and intrateam moral behavior. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 34,503–524.
  4. Boardley, I. D., & Kavussanu, M. (2007). Development and validation of the moral disengagement in sport scale. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 29,608–628.
  5. Boardley, I. D., & Kavussanu, M. (2010). Effects of goal orientation and perceived value of toughness on antisocial behavior in soccer: The mediating role of moral disengagement. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 32, 176–192.
  6. Boardley, I. D., & Kavussanu, M. (2011). Moral disengagement in sport. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 4, 93–108.
  7. Corrion, K., Long, T., Smith, A. L., & d’ArripeLongueville, F. (2009). “It’s not my fault; it’s not serious”: Athlete accounts of moral disengagement in competitive sport. The Sport Psychologist, 23,388–404.
  8. Long, T., Pantaléon, N., Bruant, G., & d’ArripeLongueville, F. (2006). A qualitative study of moral reasoning of young elite athletes. The Sport Psychologist, 20, 330–347.


See also: