Dr. Bandura is a Canadian Psychologist and Professor Emeritus of social science in Psychology at Stanford University. His major contributions to the field include: the Bobo doll experiment, social cognitive theory, social learning theory, self-efficacy and reciprocal determinism. He has been awarded with the Guggenheim Fellowship for Social Sciences, US & Canada in 1972; and the National Medal of Science for Behavioral and Social Science in 2016. In 2015, “Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live With Themselves” was published. In this interview we discuss the theory of moral disengagement, the contents of this book, and its real-life applications.
Hello Dr. Bandura. Before we begin discussing your book “Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live With Themselves” I would like to ask you a few preliminary questions pertaining to your career as a whole. Firstly, would you be able to tell our readers what initially drew you to Psychology?
My choice of psychology as my profession was by chance rather than by design. I commuted to the University of British Columbia with engineers and premeds. They enrolled in early-morning courses so I searched for a course that would fill the early-morning void. A student left a course catalogue on the library table. In flipping through it I noticed a psychology course that would fill the gap. I enrolled in it and found my profession. In addition to the fascinating subject matter, I was intrigued by the complexity of the discipline. Psychology is the only core discipline that integrates determinants across disciplinary lines in its causal structure: In addition to determinants of intrapsychic life, it includes social, institutional, biological, and cross-cultural determinants as well.
The application of psychological knowledge for human betterment in virtually all walks life was another highly attractive feature of this discipline.
Who would you cite as the most influential people in your life (this can be anyone, it does not have to be limited to those within the field of Psychology). In what way did they influence you?
My parents were the most influential figures in my life. They migrated to Canada from Eastern Europe. They had no formal education or financial resources to build their new life. My father worked on the railroad laying tracks for the Trans-Canada railway. When he saved enough money he purchased a homestead. These homesteaders were the pioneers of the Canadian nation. They had to manually convert heavily wooded land into farmland, build their own homes, schools, churches, small towns and communities. They were extraordinary models of resourcefulness, ingenuity, unwavering self-efficacy, and resilient hopefulness in the face of adversity.
These extraordinary formative years provided the foundation for my theory of human agency, that people have a hand in shaping the course their lives take. In my book, Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control, I document how people’s belief in their efficacy determine their aspirations, motivation, emotional well-being and accomplishments.
Based on your experience both as a student and as a professor, would you say there are many differences between how things were taught in the past compared to how they are taught now? Are there classes you have not taught but would be interested in teaching?
The small town in which I grew up was woefully short of educational resources. Both the elementary and high school were housed in the same school house. Only a few teachers taught the entire high school curriculum. They were not always well-versed in the subject matters. I had to take some courses by correspondence. A few of us decided we could educate ourselves. The course content was perishable but mastery of self-directed learning has been an invaluable asset throughout my career. The students of today have the entire body of knowledge at their fingertips wherever they may reside. This vastly expands their opportunity to preside over their own learning.
Before addressing specific issues I will explain briefly how people inflict harm and retain a positive self-regard and live in peace with themselves. People adapt standards of right and wrong that serve as guides and deterrents for their conduct. They do things that give them satisfaction and a sense of self-wroth, and refrain from violating their moral standards because such actions evoke self-condemnation. Self-sanctions keep behavior in line with moral standards. However, we are witnessing a pervasive moral paradox in which individuals in all walks of life commit inhumanities that violate their moral standards and still retain a positive self-view and remain untroubled by the harm they cause. They achieve this paradoxical adaptation through eight psychosocial mechanisms whereby they selectively disengage their moral self-sanctions from their detrimental conduct.
Of the eight mechanisms, moral justification is especially powerful. It not only enlists morality in the mission or cause but also disengages morality in its destructive execution. Perpetrators absolve their harmful behavior as serving worthy causes. In exonerative comparison, belief that one’s harmful actions will prevent more human suffering than they cause makes the behavior look altruistic. Euphemistic language in its sanitizing and convoluted forms cloaks harmful behavior in innocuous language and removes humanity from it.
People evade personal accountability for harmful conduct by displacing responsibility to others and by dispersing it widely so that no one bears responsibility. There is no moral issue to contend with if no perceived harm has been done. Judging the harmfulness of given policies and practices is therefore the major battleground in moral disengagement. Perpetrators disregard, minimize, distort, or even dispute harmful effects. In dehumanization, perpetrators exclude those they maltreat from their category of humanity by divesting them of human qualities or attributing animalistic or demonic qualities to them. Rendering their victims subhuman weakens moral qualms over treating them harshly. A further mode of self-exoneration blames victims for bringing the maltreatment on themselves.
In my book, Moral Disengagement, I explain the myriad ways in which people compromise their moral standards in corporate, gun, tobacco and chemical industries; in terrorism and military counterterrorism; the death penalty; and the most urgent problem facing humankind in this century, the preservation of an environmentally sustainable future.
In the introductory chapter in your book, you outline what moral disengagement is, the loci of moral disengagement as well as the social cognitive theory. Would you be able to elaborate on the victim locus, which in my opinion is possibly the most interesting and multifaceted.
As explained above, treating one’s foes as subhuman, deranged, demonic, or bestial reduces moral restraints against detrimental conduct. Bin Laden bestialized the American enemy as “the most ravenous of animals”; ISIS beheaders call their enemy “dogs”; The gun industry called those supporting gun regulation as “loony leftists.” The tobacco industry derogated research that demonstrates adverse health effects as “half-truths in the hands of fanatics,” “scientific malpractice.” Financial traders disparaged their clients as “muppets” (British slang for a stupid person who is easily manipulated); the CEO of a mining company described mining regulators as “crazies” and “greeniacs.” Abu Ghraib guards degraded, humiliated and animalized Iraqi detainees. Naked detainees were forced to wear leashes and crawl for hours like dogs, to bark to the sound of a whistle, and to crawl with guards mounted on their backs like jockeys.
You define moral disengagement as a circumvention of moral standards, which often results in good people doing bad things without feeling responsible for their harmful behaviour. In your book, you offer a number of excellent examples that illustrate this perfectly. I am sure we all practice moral disengagement in our own lives (whether on a small or large scale), but it is difficult to wrap one’s head around the way in which certain groups and individuals have been able to commit such atrocities and yet still be able to maintain their sense of moral disengagement. It is my understanding that through self-exoneration, these individuals rid themselves of blame, and guilt (whether that be by shifting the blame onto the victim, which is possibly the most cruel form of self-exoneration, or shifting the blame onto a system). When I imagine committing horrible acts such as those outlined in your book, I imagine myself not being able to fully rid myself of the feelings of guilt, and shame. Do you think that there is a permanent unconscious feeling of guilt that haunts those who commit these acts? Would you consider self-exoneration a one-time atonement, or more of a repetitive necessity, such as confessional. Is this more dependent on the individual and the act committed?
People who remain firmly convinced in the rightness of their cause and successfully disengage moral self-sanctions in implementing their cause have no reason to be plagued by unconscious feelings of guilt. Bin Laden is a good case in point. He provides an excellent example of how extensive inhumanities can be perpetrated with equanimity using the entire moral disengagement practices. Through moral justification, bin Laden sanctifies his global terrorism as serving a holy imperative: “We will continue this course, because it is part of our religion, and because Allah ordered us to carry out jihad so that the word of Allah may remain exalted to the heights.” He displaces the responsibility for the holy terror to Allah; they are carrying out their “religious duty.” Through attribution of blame, he construes terrorist strikes as morally justifiable defensive reactions to humiliation and atrocities perpetrated by “decadent infidels”: “We are only defending ourselves. This is a defensive Jihad.” By exonerative comparison with the nuclear bombing of Japan, and the toll of economic sanctions on Iraqi children, the Jihad takes on an altruistic appearance: “When people at the ends of the earth, Japan, were killed by the hundreds of thousands, young and old, it was not considered a war crime, it is something that has justification. Millions of children in Iraq is something that has justification.” He bestializes the American enemy as “lowly people,” perpetrating acts that “the most ravenous of animals would not descend to.” Terrorism is linguistically sanitized as “the winds of faith have come” to eradicate the “debauched” oppressors. His followers see themselves as holy warriors who achieve a blessed eternal life through their martyrdom.
The soldiers of World War II returned as heroes with pride in their accomplishments because they fought a just war. Many soldiers returned from Vietnam and Iraq haunted by guilt and stress disorders. They were persuaded in the morality of these wars only to discover that they fought under false pretenses with a deeply divided nation on the morality of these lengthy military campaigns. Realizing the falsity of the moral justifications is guilt provoking for the harm done. A new military syndrome has been created called “moral injury” in which soldiers are haunted by feelings of guilt, betrayal, self-loathing and self-harm. Unlike PTSD, which is rooted in traumatic combat stressors, moral injury arises from violating deeply held moral convictions on spurious grounds.
In Chapter 2 you say “in moral justification, rightness is used directly to turn harmful behaviour into good behaviour.” Those who believe they are doing something “right” or for the “greater good” eliminate any blame for their harmful behaviour. Do you think it is more difficult to show the harmful nature of a person’s behaviour when they think they are right and justified in what they are doing? Do you have to first illustrate to them that their behaviour is not right if it is harming others?
In exonerative moral justifications, wrongdoers do not deny their harmful means. They view them as serving worthy purposes. This legitimizes and sanitizes their harmful practices. In consequential utilitarian justification based on common good, some must be sacrificed for the benefit of many. Terrorists, who view themselves as “freedom fighters,” publicize the harm they cause rather than deny it.
Last year there was a tragic shooting at Pulse nightclub, where 49 people lost their lives, and another 53 were left injured. The obvious target in this scenario was the LGBTQ community, but bystanders were so quick to judge the scenario as an instance of religious extremism, and quickly began using the Muslim community as a scapegoat. Why do you think it was easier for bystanders to shift the attention from the LGBTQ community onto the Muslim community in America? Is this a reflection on how both communities are viewed in America?
The killer was an American-born Algerian raised as a Muslim. In his 911 call shortly after the shooting, he swore allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq. Given the hostile national climate regarding Muslims, this tragic incident was readily used as further evidence that Muslims are dangerous.
In chapter 4 you discuss the NRA, and the overwhelming ignorance towards gun ownership presented by the NRA and gun owners in general. There is a dialogue surrounding the NRA that more often than not points the blame to mental illness when it comes to the misuse of firearms (in murder-suicides, mass shootings and the like). How do you propose this dialogue is influencing the stigma surrounding mental illnesses? Do you believe that it is worse in America or in Canada?
Mass killings are performed rapidly with semi-automatic military style rifles equipped with large killing capacity. Lanza killed 20 young children and six staff members with 154 bullets fired in under 5 minutes. NRA shifts the contributing factors to mass killings from deficient regulation of lethal weapons to mental illness. In the oft repeated causal cliché, “It is people not guns that kill people,” the NRA deletes the means by which people kill people.
Only about 4% of violence is attributable to mental illness. The severely mentally ill use guns mainly to kill themselves rather than to kill strangers. La Pierre not only diverted attention to mental illness but demonized the mentally ill as “genuine monsters. . . that are so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can even possibly comprehend them.”
Canada does not engage in causal displacement. Canadians do not venerate guns, they regulate them, and are spared mass killings.
There seems to be an epidemic of police brutality against African-Americans in the United-States. In fact, you could say that it has existed for quite some time. Why do you think people are so quick to dismiss these cases of racial profiling and defend police officers with the assumption that they were “just doing their jobs”? Do you think it is easier for members of one group to morally disengage when acts of evil do not directly affect them, but involve another group altogether?
Police are granted considerable discretionary power in judging and protecting their safety. Police behavior is often based on their own social and moral codes. Given widespread societal discriminatory practices, some members of police forces are likely to be prone to violence against African Americans. My chapter on Capital Punishment documents the prominent role that moral disengagement plays in public support of the death penalty, jurors sentencing persons to death, and executioners who have to kill them. It remains a problem of future research to determine the role that moral disengagement plays in police violence.
A number of factors shield police from the consequences of violent misconduct. Victims are intimidated from reporting maltreatment. Informal police codes prohibit informing or testifying against fellow officers. Police administrators are quick to defend their officers to protect their public image. As a result, charges of police violence are often dismissed.
After Brexit, there was an an influx of racist and prejudicial behaviour. Do you think that Brexit acted as a vehicle for racism that already existed in Britain, and that this encouraged Native Britons to fully disengage themselves from non-natives? Would this be an example of moral disengagement at the agency locus?
A good share of the British population views immigration as impairing the way of life in their society. As a member of the European Union, the United Kingdom was required to admit a certain number of refugees. This requirement undoubtedly contributed to the social pressure to exit from the European Union (see question 12 for other factors fueling the radical right movement).
You mention that epiphenomenalists argue that there are neural networks that operate outside of our awareness and control, and that this strips humans of personal identity and agency; thus arguing that individuals should not be held responsible for what they cannot control (Pg. 41). This sounds reminiscent of arguments used for rapists, (victims are blamed for enticing rape so the rapist could not control themselves Pg. 20), and incidents of racial profiling in court cases. This indicates to me that there is a bigger issue at hand; this is more systemic than individual. There are a number of systems that have a significant influence on us as individuals, and as a society. We are so easily removed and we are so able to disassociate. Why do you think this is, and how do you suggest we try to be more engaged as individuals and as a society?
In arguing that people’s behavior is regulated by neutral networks that operate outside of their awareness and control, epiphenomenalists face a formidable ethical problem for which they have no solution. It is pointless to hold anyone responsible for their behavior if they have no control over it. Criminals should not be held personally accountable for their crimes, nor police for abusive enforcement practices, jurors for biased sentencing, and jailers for maltreatment of inmates. They can all disclaim responsibility on the grounds that their neural networks made them do it.
Such a view would erode the personal and social ethics that undergird a civil society. How would people create and maintain a civil society if its members were divested of conscious regulation for their actions? Epiphenomenalists have been unable to explain how nonethical neuronal processes produce ethical and socially responsible conduct. The Moral Disengagement book describes their failed efforts. As mindful agents, people are generative, creative, proactive, and reflective, not simply reactive to experience. They use their sensory, motor, and cerebral systems to accomplish their tasks and goals that give meaning, direction, and satisfaction to their lives.
Human adaptation and change are rooted in social systems. Therefore, personal agency operates within a broad network of sociostructural influences. In agentic transactions, people are both producers and products of social systems. Much of the moral disengagement is collective not just individual. Collective moral disengagement at the social system level requires a network of participants vindicating their harmful practices through moral disengagement.
Just this year, a man rose to power in America who is arguably unfit for the job. There have been many debates surrounding his candidacy, and many have turned violent. Do you think the act of voting for him was in some way a reaction to perceived injustices against the American people? How would you explain the justification for some of the aggressive and violent behaviour enacted by both Trump supporters and anti-Trump protesters?
We are witnessing a global rise of radical right movements. They are the product of major social dislocations. The change from the rural era to the industrial era transformed people’s lives. We are now in the midst of another sweeping transformative change from the industrial era to the information cyberworld era. Many people are left behind by these dislocating changes. With growing automation, globalization, and outsourcing, they are losing their livelihood and feel marginalized with social elites and immigrants destroying their traditional way of life. The Trumps and La Pens exploit people’s discontent, fears, and resentments and portray themselves as their saviors and social reformers.
After first completing your book I was amazed at how many times I found myself nodding along with what you were saying and fervently uttering agreeance. I started to witness small acts of moral disengagement and I became more aware of the language used to justify certain wrongs. I saw this in my daily life, in political life, and in my work life. This heightened awareness has helped me to truly assess a situation, and to see things from a moral disengagement perspective, so to speak. I think it is human to err, and to make excuses for our mistakes. Perhaps, this moral disengagement is a defense mechanism to protect us from the mental anguish of taking responsibility for horrendous acts. Do you think that moral disengagement is a defense mechanism to protect us from resulting neuroses?
When people engage in behavior that violates their moral standards, they use methods of moral disengagement to neutralize aversive self-sanctions. “Defense mechanism” is a Freudian construct in which psychological defenses are used to repress tabooed impulses. While defense phenomenon are linguistically similar in both approaches the theories differ markedly in the nature of the threat, how it is managed, and the functions the mechanisms serve. In addition, some of the mechanisms in the theory under discussion engage morality in the service of detrimental behavior by portraying them as serving worthy purposes
Moral disengagement does not reside solely in people’s minds. As previously noted, some of it is built into the structures of social systems that enable wrongdoers to disavow responsibility for this harmful behavior. Subordinates view themselves as simply carrying out orders so they bear no responsibility for their actions. Authorities create mazy chains of authorization, sanction, detrimental conduct surreptitiously, keep themselves intentionally uninformed of their use, and devise insulating social arrangements that permit deniability of wrongdoing. Moreover, in the collective form, participation in wrongdoing is widely dispersed, which diminishes a new personal responsibility.
Do you think that knowing about moral disengagement makes a person more likely to take responsibility for their attitudes and behaviours?
When people know the methods of moral disengagement they see through them. This diminishes their effectiveness both personally and socially.
I would like to close this interview by thanking you for participating, and by looking to the future. If you were to give future Psychologists a piece of advice, what would it be?
Fight cynicism that efforts at change are futile. Build people’s sense of personal and collective efficacy to enable them to better their lives. Make it difficult for people to strip humanity from detrimental conduct. Promote moral engagement in social practices that foster inclusive, socially just, and humane societies.