Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

Emotion Regulation and Negative Emotionality Moderate the Effects of Moral (Dis)Engagement on Aggression

Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

Emotion Regulation and Negative Emotionality Moderate the Effects of Moral (Dis)Engagement on Aggression

Article excerpt

The effects of guilt, shame, and externalization of blame on aggressive behavior were investigated among a total of 307 Finnish fifth and sixth graders (M^sub age^ =11.9 years). Self-reported proneness to feel guilt and shame was expected to reduce levels of peer-reported aggressive behavior, whereas selfreported externalization of blame was hypothesized to function as a moral disengagement mechanism with links to greater aggressive behavior. However, these associations were expected to be moderated by children's emotion-regulation capabilities and tendencies to experience negative emotionality (as reported by teachers). Results indicated that guilt and shame were associated with lower levels of aggression for children with poor emotion regulation (or high negative emotionality). For children with effective emotion regulation (or low negative emotionality), shame and externalization of blame were associated with higher levels of aggression. The results suggest that a dark side may be apparent in effective emotion regulation (and low negative emotionality) in that it enables children to disengage from the normally inhibiting functions of guilt and shame and to act aggressively in response to shame and externalization of blame.

Guilt and shame are self-conscious moral emotions that provide feedback on the (un)acceptability of one's own behavior such that, even in ambiguous situations, the anticipation of these emotions can stimulate a person prone to feel guilt or shame (Ferguson, Stegge, Eyre, Vollmer, & Ashbaker, 2000; Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007). Self-conscious moral emotions are differentially linked to children's social behaviors. Feelings of guilt make readily apparent that the self is responsible for unacceptable behavior and motivate reparative actions to ease the tension created by the act (Lewis, 1971; Tangney et al., 2007). Thus, guilt is known to strengthen social bonds and attachments by arousing the desire to approach others (Baumeister, Stillwell, & Heatherton, 1994; Ferguson, Stegge, & Damhuis, 1991). Furthermore, guilt has been associated with constructive means of handling anger (Tangney & Dearing, 2002; Tangney, Wagner, Hill-Barlow, Marschall, & Gramzow, 1996), prosocial behavior (e.g., Menesini & Camodeca, 2008; Olthof, 2012), and low levels of aggression (Roos, Hodges, & Salmivalli, 2013; Roos, Salmivalli, & Hodges, 2011; Tangney, Wagner, Fletcher, & Gramzow, 1992; Tangney et al., 1996). A chronic lack of guilt is a hallmark of highly aggressive youth (Frick & White, 2008).

Shame, on the other hand, involves a negative evaluation of the global self, supporting causal attributions that are internal and stable (Tangney & Dearing, 2002). In the context of moral transgressions, shame is aroused by evaluations reflecting the negative qualities of the self (Tangney et al., 1996). Shame is related to poor interpersonal adjustment (Tangney et al., 1992; Wong & Tsai, 2007) and provides motivation to hide the self or to withdraw (Lewis, 1971; Tracy & Robins, 2006). However, shame is sometimes linked to greater externalizing tendencies because of the defensive responses caused by the wounded self (Lewis, 1971; Stuewig, Tangney, Heigel, Harty, & McCloskey, 2010). Among narcissists, feelings of shame can threaten their inflated yet fragile self-views and lead to aggressive responding (Baumeister & Bushman, 2003; Thomaes, Bushman, Stegge, & Olthof, 2008).

Although moral emotions provide us with feedback on our own behavior, immoral acts can be converted into personally acceptable ones through a process of moral disengagement (Bandura, Barbaranelli, Caprara, & Pastorelli, 1996). By using cognitive distortions, such as externalization of blame, regulatory self-sanctions (e.g., anticipatory guilt) can be disengaged from detrimental conduct such that aggressive reactions are promoted (Bandura et al., 1996). Results of previous studies have indicated that children high in moral disengagement, such as externalization of blame, also engage in high levels of aggressive behavior (Bandura et al. …

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