Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

A Longitudinal Study of the Associations between Moral Disengagement and Active Defending versus Passive Bystanding during Bullying Situations

Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

A Longitudinal Study of the Associations between Moral Disengagement and Active Defending versus Passive Bystanding during Bullying Situations

Article excerpt

Researchers have long recognized the critical role that student bystanders play in either reducing or amplifying bullying behavior in schools (Lagerspetz, Björkqvist, Berts, & King, 1982; Salmivalli, Lagerspetz, Björkqvist, Österman, & Kaukiainen, 1996). Beyond bullies and victims, bystanders who witness bullying episodes participate in the overall process in more or less positive ways depending on their degree of activity versus passivity and prosociality versus aggression (Salmivalli, Voeten, & Poskiparta, 2011; Sutton & Smith, 1999). Indeed, the presence of peer bystanders has been shown to be related to the persistence of bullying episodes in that those bystanders who passively spectate as well as those who take on more active bully-reinforcing roles (e.g., cheering and laughing) may provide rewards that maintain the bully's aggressive behavior (O'Connell, Pepler, & Craig, 1999; Salmivalli et al., 1996). Unfortunately, despite the large proportion of children who are present during instances of bullying, few act as defenders of victimized peers (e.g., Craig & Pepler, 1997; Salmivalli et al., 1996). As such, identifying factors that may motivate passive bystanders to act in defense of victims is a very worthwhile direction that researchers have recently begun to follow.

Moral Disengagement

Bullying involves a power imbalance between perpetrator and victim. As such, bullying incidents present bullies and bystanders with a moral dilemma. While many contextual and personal factors likely influence behavior in such situations (e.g., Caravita, Di Blasio, & Salmivalli, 2009), understanding factors that inhibit moral agency in a morally compelling situation targets the theoretical core of the problem. Bandura's (1986, 1999) sociocognitive theory of moral agency conceptualizes moral disengagement as a self-regulatory cognitive strategy that is used by individuals to deal with mismatches between moral principles and actual conduct. According to the theory, behaving against one's moral code becomes less guilt-inducing when one selectively disengages moral self-sanctions from moral transgressions. This strategy is selective in that it is thought to be necessary only in situations when one anticipates committing acts that are against one's moral code or when one has already done so. The theory also postulates a gradual interplay over time between moral disengagement and moral action.

Moral Disengagement and Bystander Behavior

Bandura's framework has enhanced our understanding of aggressive behavior in youth (e.g., Bandura, Barbaranelli, Caprara, & Pastorelli, 1996; Gini, Pozzoli, & Hymel, 2014; Paciello, Fida, Tramontano, Lupinetti, & Caprara, 2008) and has also been found to be a reliable construct in understanding bullying behavior (e.g., Hymel, Rocke-Henderson, & Bonanno, 2005; Menesini et al., 2003). However, a significant aspect of his theory that has remained largely neglected in the literature regards the power that moral engagement may have in thwarting others' efforts to inflict harm. In fact, children who are morally engaged have been found to be more prosocial (Bandura et al., 1996). Along these lines, a handful of studies have highlighted ways in which moral engagement can bring out the best in children during bullying situations, as exemplified through greater defending. For instance, Gini, Pozzoli, and Hauser (2011) investigated moral competence and moral disengagement (reversed in order to be used as a measure of moral compassion) in peer-reported bullies and defenders, finding that bullies were comparable to defenders in terms of knowing right from wrong, but that they showed greater deficits in feeling moral compassion.

Patterns involving passive bystanders are not clear. The theoretical expectation is that moral disengagement would be higher in passive bystanders than in defenders. Bandura and colleagues (1996) argue that if moral principles are disengaged from harmful conduct, not only does motivation for aggressive behavior increase, but so may the tendency to remain a passive witness who is not troubled with feelings of guilt for not helping. …

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