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How Teachers Can Encourage Moral Behavior

By Ask a Psychologist Contributor — October 14, 2020 2 min read
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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.


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