Selective Activation and Disengagement of Moral Control


  • Albert Bandura

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    1. Stanford University
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      ALBERT BANDURA is David Starr Jordan Professor of Social Sciences in Psychology at Stanford University. He is a proponent of social cognitive theory, which accords a central role to cognitive, vicarious, self-regulatory, and self-reflective processes in sociocognitive functioning. His recent book, Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory, provides the conceptual framework and analyzes the large body of knowledge bearing on this theory. Bandura is past president of the American Psychological Association and a recipient of its Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award.

Department of Psychology, Jordan Hall, Building 420, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305


Moral conduct is motivated and regulated mainly by the ongoing exercise of self-reactive influence. But self-regulatory mechanisms do not operate unless they are activated, and there are different psychological mechanisms by which moral control can be selectively activated or disengaged from inhumane conduct. Self-sanctions can be disengaged by reconstruing detrimental conduct through moral justification, euphemistic labeling, and advantageous contrast with other inhumanities; by obscuring personal agency in detrimental activities through diffusion and displacement of responsibility; by disregarding or misrepresenting the harmful consequences of inhumane conduct; and by blaming and dehumanizing the victims. These mechanisms of moral disengagement operate not only in the perpetration of inhumanities under extraordinary circumstances, but in everyday situations where people routinely perform activities that bring personal benefits at injurious costs to others. Given the many psychological devices for disengagement of moral control, societies cannot rely solely on individuals, however honorable their standards, to provide safeguards against inhumanities. To function humanely, societies must establish effective social safeguards against moral disengagement practices that foster exploitive and destructive conduct.