Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

The Chicken and the Egg: Longitudinal Associations between Moral Deficiencies and Bullying: A Parallel Process Latent Growth Model

Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

The Chicken and the Egg: Longitudinal Associations between Moral Deficiencies and Bullying: A Parallel Process Latent Growth Model

Article excerpt

The present study investigated the longitudinal association between the development of bullying (traditional bullying and cyberbullying) and the development of moral deficiencies (moral disengagement, low moral responsibility, and weak feelings of remorse) during adolescence. A total of 960 Swiss adolescents completed an electronic questionnaire in schools four times, with 6-month intervals. Results of a parallel process model showed that the initial levels of moral deficiencies were positively associated with initial scores of bullying. Furthermore, the initial levels of moral deficiencies were positively associated with the development of bullying (i.e., initial trend and changes in trend across time). In contrast, the initial level of bullying was not found to be associated with the development (i.e., the slope) of moral deficiencies. Accordingly, we conclude that moral deficiencies might be a trait that predicts the development of bullying and not vice versa. Implications of the findings for bullying prevention are discussed.

Bullying is an aggressive behavior that conflicts with individual and social moral standards. This is the case for both traditional bullying (defined as a particular form of aggressive behavior performed repeatedly against a defenseless victim; Olweus, 1993) and cyberbullying (defined as bullying performed using electronic forms of communication; Slonje & Smith, 2008). According to the social cognitive theory of the moral self (Bandura, 1999), if an individual performs a behavior that conflicts with his or her moral standards, cognitive mechanisms such as moral disengagement might be selectively activated in order to free oneself from self-sanction. Therefore, individuals who bully might use these mechanisms to maintain a positive self-image and to escape feelings of remorse.

A body of research has addressed the question of whether the social cognitive theory of the moral self can be applied to bullying. More specifically, research has examined how bullying is associated with moral deficiencies such as low moral values, high moral disengagement, low moral responsibility, and weak moral emotions, thus taking an integrative approach that combines moral cognition and moral emotions (Malti & Latzko, 2010; Menesini et al., 2003). Regarding moral cognition, traditional bullying has been found to be positively associated with moral disengagement (Hymel, Rocke-Henderson, & Bonanno, 2005; Menesini et al., 2003; Obermann, 2011; Perren & Gutzwiller-Helfenfinger, 2012) and negatively associated with moral responsibility (Perren, GutzwillerHelfenfinger, Malti, & Hymel, 2012). Furthermore, moral disengagement has been found to be positively linked to cyberbullying (Pomari & Wood, 2010). However, one study found no association between moral disengagement and cyberbullying (Bauman, 2010), whereas other studies found no association between moral disengagement and cyberbullying once moral values and feelings of remorse (Perren & Gutzwiller-Helfenfinger, 2012) or traditional bullying and rule-breaking behavior (Sticca, Ruggieri, Alsaker, & Perren, 2013) were taken into account. Therefore, evidence for the association between moral cognition and traditional bullying is stronger than evidence for their association with cyberbullying.

Regarding moral emotions, Menesini et al. (2003) proposed a model that combines moral emotions and moral justifications. This model was based on a model by Lewis (1992) and postulated that morally responsible emotions (i.e., guilt and shame) and morally disengaged emotions (i.e., indifference and pride) are two opposite ends of a continuum and indicate attitudes of moral responsibility and disengagement, respectively. The authors showed that traditional bullies display more morally disengaged emotions, and Menesini and Camodeca (2008) showed that such bullies also display less morally responsible emotions. Taken together, these results show that moral cognition and moral emotions are closely linked to each other and play a prominent role in understanding bullying. …

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