Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

Emotions of Moral Disengagement, Class Norms, and Bullying in Adolescence: A Multilevel Approach

Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

Emotions of Moral Disengagement, Class Norms, and Bullying in Adolescence: A Multilevel Approach

Article excerpt

Using an individual-by-environment framework, this study evaluated the role of individual- and group-level moral indices and their interaction in predicting student reports of bullying. The sample included 1,009 Italian adolescents (36% girls) from 56 classrooms (mean age = 15.02 years, SD = .71). Individual-level predictors included gender and emotions of moral disengagement, whereas group-level predictors included pro-bullying behaviors and class bullying norms of accepted students. Results showed that emotions of moral disengagement were associated with individual bullying and that both measures of group bullying norms-class levels of pro-bullying roles and class levels of bullying by accepted students-were associated with bullying at the classroom level. In addition, a cross-level interaction was also observed; emotions of moral disengagement were associated with increased bullying when levels of pro-bullying behavior in the classroom were higher.

Bullying is a complex behavior influenced by the interplay of individual and social factors. Moral aspects at both the individual level and the group level constitute relevant predictors of bullying behavior (Gini, Pozzoli & Hauser, 2011; Guerra, Williams, & Sadek, 2011; Hymel, Schonert-Reichl, Bonanno, Vaillancourt, & Rocke Henderson, 2010). At the individual level, a person may perceive a transgression in terms of moral responsibility, which is usually expressed by feelings of shame and guilt or in terms of moral disengagement, often reported as the absence of emotions (indifference) and/or pride in face of a wrongdoing or after a transgressive behavior. Moreover, interactional contexts can differ in terms of social norms supporting bullying behavior (Salmivalli, 2010). For example, within a classroom the salience of the bullying norm can be defined by the level of positive reinforcement of pro-bullies and by the level of bullying of accepted students within the class. Therefore, the moral mechanism that guides one's personal behavior in certain contexts is often defined at both the individual level and the environmental level. The analysis of this complex interplay among individual moral emotions, class norms, and bullying was the aim of this study.

Individual-Level Predictors of Bullying: Moral Emotions

Moral disengagement was originally described as a cognitive process able to deactivate moral controls and personal sanctions and to justify personal negative behavior (Bandura, 1991, 2002). Bandura, Barbaranelli, Caprara, and Pastorelli (1996) refer to mechanisms that include cognitive restructuring of the situation, obscuring or minimizing the causal role of the actors, disregarding or distorting the consequences, and blaming or dehumanizing the victim. In relation to bullying, several studies have shown that moral disengagement is a highly significant predictor of bullying behavior (Almeida, Correia, & Marinho, 2010; Gini, 2006; Gini, Pozzoli, & Hauser, 2011; Gini, Pozzoli, & Hymel, 2014; Hymel, Rocke-Henderson, & Bonanno, 2005; Obermann, 2011; Pornari & Wood, 2010).

Studies specifically addressing moral disengagement reasoning have shown that children and adolescents who were more frequently involved in bullying produced more morally disengaged and fewer morally responsible justifications (Perren & Gutzwiller-Helfenfinger, 2012). Some authors pointed out the role of egocentric motivation (Menesini, Sanchez, Fonzi, Ortega, Costabile, & Lo Feudo, 2003), of cognitive restructuring, and of blaming and dehumanizing the victim (Hymel et al., 2005; Pozzoli, Gini, & Vieno, 2012; Thornberg & Jungert, 2013) as individual mechanisms leading to bullying behavior. As in moral disengagement studies of adults, all of these mechanisms were found to justify bullying and negative behaviors and reduce discomfort and feelings of guilt and shame after misconduct.

In addition to cognitive reasoning and justifications, several studies have focused also on emotional reactions as possible indicators of moral motivation and of a personal sense of responsibility or disengagement. …

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