Studies on bullying and morality

The research project focusing on bullying and morality covers a range of aspects in a set of five studies. How do bystanders react to bullying and what are the mechanisms of moral disengangement? These are some of the questions discussed in the studies.

Bystander Behaviour in Bullying Situations: Basic Moral Sensitivity, Moral Disengagement and Defender Self-Efficacy

The aim of the present study was to investigate how basic moral sensitivity in bullying, moral disengagement in bullying and defender self-efficacy were related to different bystander behaviours in bullying. Therefore, we examined pathways that linked students’ basic moral sensitivity, moral disengagement, and defender self-efficacy to different bystander behaviours in bullying situations. Three hundred and forty-seven teenagers completed a bullying survey. Findings indicated that compared with boys, girls expressed higher basic moral sensitivity in bullying, lower defender self-efficacy and moral disengagement in bullying. Results from the SEM showed that basic moral sensitivity in bullying was negatively related to pro-bully behaviour and positively related to outsider and defender behaviour, mediated by moral disengagement in bullying, which in turn was positively related to pro-bully behaviour and negatively related to outsider and defender behaviour. What differed in the relations between outsider and defender behaviours was the degree of defender self-efficacy. For further reading, see:

Thornberg, R., & Jungert, T. (2013). Bystander behavior in bullying situations: Basic moral sensitivity, moral disengagement and defender self-efficacy. Journal of Adolescence, 36, 475-483.

School Bullying and the Mechanisms of Moral Disengagement

The aim of the present study was to examine to what degree different mechanisms of moral disengagement were related to age, gender, bullying, and defending among school children. Three hundred and seventy‐two Swedish children ranging in age from 10 to 14 years completed a questionnaire. Findings revealed that boys expressed significantly higher levels of moral justification, euphemistic labeling, diffusion of responsibility, distorting consequences, and victim attribution, as compared with girls. Whereas boys bullied others significantly more often than girls, age was unrelated to bullying. Moral justification and victim attribution were the only dimensions of moral disengagement that significantly related to bullying. Furthermore, younger children and girls were more likely to defend victims. Diffusion of responsibility and victim attribution were significantly and negatively related to defending, while the other dimensions of moral disengagement were unrelated to defending. For further reading, see: 

Thornberg, R., & Jungert, T. (2014). School bullying and the mechanisms of moral disengagement. Aggressive Behavior, 40, 99-108.

Children’s Conceptions of Bullying and Repeated Conventional Transgressions: Moral, Conventional, Structuring and Personal-Choice Reasoning

This study examined 307 elementary school children’s judgements and reasoning about bullying and other repeated transgressions when school rules regulating these transgressions have been removed in hypothetical school situations. As expected, children judged bullying (repeated moral transgressions) as wrong independently of rules and as more wrong than all the other repeated transgressions. They justified their judgement in terms of harm that the actions caused. Moreover, whereas children tended to judge repeated structuring transgressions as wrong independently of rules (but to a lesser degree than when they evaluated bullying) and justified their judgements in terms of the disruptive, obstructive or disturbing effects that the actions caused, they tended to accept repeated etiquette transgressions by arguing that the acts had no negative effects or simply that the rule had been removed. The findings confirm as well as extend previous socialcognitive domain research on children’s socio-moral reasoning. For further reading, see:

Thornberg, R., Birberg Thornberg, U., Alamaa, R., & Daud, N. (in press). Children's conceptions of bullying and repeated conventional transgressions: Moral, conventional, structuring, and personal-choice reasoning. Educational Psychology (published online).

Unique and Interactive Effects of Moral Emotions and Moral Disengagement on Bullying and Defending among School Children

The first aim of the present study was to examine in a single model how moral disengagement and moral emotions were related to bullying and defending behaviour among school children. The second aim was to test whether the two moral dimensions interacted with each other to explain behaviour in bullying situations. Data were collected from 561 Swedish students. Moral disengagement was positively associated with bullying and negatively associated with defending, whereas moral emotions score was negatively associated with bullying and positively associated with defending. Moreover, students who scored high in moral emotions did not tend to bully other students, irrespective of their levels of moral disengagement, whereas when the moral emotions score was low bullying behaviour increased with increasing levels of moral disengagement. In contrast, moral disengagement was negatively related to defending behaviour at low levels of moral emotions, but not when moral emotions were high. For further reading, see:

Thornberg, R., Pozzoli, T., Gini, G., & Jungert, T. (in press). Unique and interactive effects of moral emotions and moral disengagement on bullying and defending among school children. Journal of Elementary School (this paper has not been published online yet).

The Role of Explicit and Implicit Moral Cognition in Bullying and Defending Behaviour

Research on bullying has highlighted the role of morality in explaining different students’ behaviour during bullying episodes. However, research has been limited to the analysis of explicit measures of moral characteristics and moral reasoning, whereas implicit measures have never been considered. To overcome this limitation, this study investigates the relationship between bullying, defending and both explicit (moral disengagement, self-importance of moral values) and implicit (immediate affect toward moral stimuli [IAMS]) moral components. Young adolescents (N=279, mean age=11 years, 9 months, 44.4% girls) completed a series of self-report scales and individually performed a computer task investigating the IAMS. Two hierarchical linear regressions (bootstrapping method) were performed. Results showed that moral disengagement was associated with the two behaviours at high levels of IAMS, but not when IAMS was low. In contrast, self-importance of moral values was not significantly associated to the two behaviours when IAMS was high, but both associations were significant at low levels of IAMS. This study represents a first step toward a more detailed analysis of different explicit and implicit moral dimensions that may play a role in predicting students’ behaviour in bullying. Involved in the study are Tiziana Pozzoli, Gianluca Gini, and Robert Thornberg, in collaboration between Linköping University and University of Padua. The study has not been published yet.