Opinion Blog

Ask a Psychologist

Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

How Teachers Can Encourage Moral Behavior

By Ask a Psychologist Contributor — October 14, 2020 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This is the second in a two-part series from Albert Bandura, a pioneer in the field of social cognitive theory and the most cited living psychologist in the world. Read the first piece on self-efficacy here.

Albert Bandura, the David Starr Jordan Professor Emeritus of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University and a recipient of the National Medal of Science, is the author of Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control and Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live With Themselves.

What should teachers know about encouraging moral behavior?

In the course of socialization, children adopt standards of right and wrong that serve as guides and deterrents for conduct. They aim to do things that give them satisfaction and a sense of self-worth and refrain from behaving in ways that violate their moral standards because such actions evoke self-condemnation.

However, today we are witnessing a pervasive moral paradox in which individuals in all walks of life commit harmful behavior that violates their moral standards and still retain a positive self-regard and live in peace with themselves. In my book, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live With Themselves, I document how transgressors resolve the paradox in most of our major social systems. They also achieve this paradoxical adaptation through psychosocial mechanisms whereby they selectively disengage their moral self-sanctions from their detrimental conduct.

These forms of moral disengagement include:

  • Worthy moral ends are used to justify harmful means.
  • Inhumanities are shrouded in sanitizing and convoluted euphemisms.
  • Wrongdoers absolve themselves of the harm they cause by displacing and diffusing responsibility.
  • There is no moral issue if harmful practices are judged to be harmless. Wrongdoers ignore, minimize, and dismiss the harmful effects of their behavior.
  • Wrongdoers dehumanize their victims as subhuman, animalistic, and demonized beings.
  • Victims are blamed for bringing suffering upon themselves.

In research with students, it is the moral disengagers who are prone to bullying. They do so with low guilt and are deficient in socially empathic behavior. Among students who are morally engaged, those who have a low sense of efficacy to curtail bullying remain silent, whereas those with a high sense of efficacy intervene with bullies.

If students are informed of the modes of moral disengagement, they can see through them and thereby reduce their use. There are several reasons why teachers need to understand the theory of moral disengagement. Students should be informed about how moral self-restraints are stripped from harmful behavior. They should also be informed on how moral corruption greatly impairs life for students as well as adults.

One striking finding of research is the extraordinary power of humanization to curb inhumane practices. Seeing common humanity in others arouses empathy and compassion. It also instills a sense of shared responsibility for society. Morality is governed socially rather than by laws of nature, thus enabling people to shape the world. The choices we make today will profoundly affect life for future generations. I want to say to the youths of the world: If we’re going to have a future, you are the ones who are going to have to create it.

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP