Peer and cyber aggression in secondary school students: the role of moral disengagement, hostile attribution bias, and outcome expectancies



This study investigated the relationship between cognitive mechanisms, applied by people to rationalize and justify harmful acts, and engagement in traditional peer and cyber aggression among school children. We examined the contribution of moral disengagement (MD), hostile attribution bias, and outcome expectancies, and we further explored the individual contribution of each MD mechanism. Our aim was to identify shared and unique cognitive factors of the two forms of aggression. Three hundred and thirty-nine secondary school children completed self-report measures that assessed MD, hostile attribution bias, outcome expectancies, and their roles and involvement in traditional and cyber aggression. We found that the MD total score positively related to both forms of peer-directed aggression. Furthermore, traditional peer aggression positively related to children's moral justification, euphemistic language, displacement of responsibility and outcome expectancies, and negatively associated with hostile attribution bias. Moral justification also related positively to cyber aggression. Cyber aggression and cyber victimization were associated with high levels of traditional peer aggression and victimization, respectively. The results suggest that MD is a common feature of both traditional and cyber peer aggression, but it seems that traditional forms of aggression demand a higher level of rationalization or justification. Moreover, the data suggest that the expectation of positive outcomes from harmful behavior facilitates engagement in traditional peer aggression. The differential contribution of specific cognitive mechanisms indicates the need for future research to elaborate on the current findings, in order to advance theory and inform existing and future school interventions tackling aggression and bullying. Aggr. Behav. 36:81–94, 2010. © 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.