I don’t know you but I can say something accurate about yourself: you hate hypocritical people. Nobody can bear the double standards that drive their behavior. Why would you criticize some actions while you repeat them on your own? If you often get frustrated for not finding the answer to this question, stay tuned for this stunning theory.
Albert Bandura developed his Moral Disengagement theory to explain why good people can behave poorly. This term refers to the action of unplugging our set of ethics and moral principles concerning our own behavior in a specific context. This way, we justify some actions we had always considered unacceptable just because we did them. At once, we continue holding the same values. Essentially, there is a mental mechanism that makes us hypocritical.
According to this theory, moral disengagement accounts for the high number of mentally healthy people that commit crimes and display antisocial behaviors. In some cases, it is not that the offenders don’t know the difference between right and wrong or that they miss empathy. They can recognize the faults of others. However, judging one’s actions is biased by the following mechanisms.
7 Mechanisms that Turn You Bad
Through this mechanism, cruel behavior is justified as long as it serves for a moral purpose that makes it socially acceptable according to the perpetrator. First, the person finds a good reason to violate his standards and then engages in reprehensible behavior. By doing this, they perceive the bad action as right. The misuse of plenty of moral codes serves as an example of this mechanism, like religious and political statements that allow selective discrimination or violence.
Another way to justify reproachable behavior is to compare it to worse possibilities. Thus what initially could seem unacceptable, it is trivialized when looked next to its worst version. You may think stealing a small item is not as bad when there are people that robbed banks. For Bandura, moral justification and advantageous comparison stand for the most dangerous mechanisms because our self-made explanation often provokes that the bad conduct becomes a source of self-validation.
How we name our actions can change the way we perceive them. To lessen the harming potential of our behavior, we use deceptive terms that appear less condemnatory than the actual ones. Labeling some with sanitized words instead of aggressive or intricate rephrasing alters the meaning we give to the situation even though it remains the same. It is also a strategy to decrease one’s responsibility in the committed acts. For example, when you say ‘the teacher made me fail’ instead of ‘I failed’ you eliminate your agency.
Displacement of responsibility
People are more likely to engage in undesirable conduct if an external agent assumes responsibility for the consequences. It commonly happens when authority harbors much power, facilitating the illusion that our actions are controlled by it rather than ourselves, thus decreasing discomfort and regretfulness. This mechanism becomes very dangerous in brainwashing environments because the actors don’t feel responsible for their actions and consequently won’t hesitate to follow the cruelest instructions.
Diffusion of responsibility
Social psychology proved that individuals feel more disinhibited when they are surrounded by equals. Collective behavior serves as proof that our conduct is right hence erasing any shadow of a doubt. As a result, people will more likely engage in immoral behavior in groups. Have you ever attended a sports competition, you will know this effect.
Another way to trick our minds into committing harmful activities is to divest the victims of their human condition. If you believe you are not dealing with a person with a life, feelings, and experiences but with a sub-human, you won’t hold on to the same values. Dehumanization validates inhuman practices by selectively deciding who is not included in the new definition of humanity. The Standford Prison experiment showed how guards tortured and humiliated prisoners due to their perspective of superiority.
Finally, when the other mechanisms fail and the results of our bad actions strike, we may try to diminish the gravity of the consequences. One way is to preferentially recall information related to the potential benefits of the conduct and belittle its negative effects. The extreme option is to avoid facing them or denying them. Although the mechanism comforts us, it eliminates responsibility and hence diminishes the chances of repairing the caused damage.
All in all, there is not always an external explanation of immoral actions, cruel behavior, or crime. The human mind is so complex it can manage various sets of rules for different scenarios and apply them only under certain circumstances. It seems obvious that most of the times we will try to favor ourselves. Therefore, being aware of these mechanisms is essential to avoid engaging in the actions we condemn. Nobody is free of being bad. Otherwise, there would be no freedom.
Bandura, A. (2016). Moral disengagement: How people do harm and live with themselves. New York, NY, US: Worth Publishers.
Johnson, C. (2014). Why “Good” Followers Go “Bad”: The Power of Moral Disengagement. Journal of Leadership Education 13, 4.