One explanation for bullying, and for why witnesses rarely act, is what psychologists call moral disengagement. Moral disengagement can appear both at individual and group levels, thus as a group phenomenon. In this study the researchers use the term collective moral disengagement to refer to the existence of shared moral disengagement beliefs among a group.
“Moral disengagement is a sort of moral corruption, for instance exemplified by euphemisms such as ‘we were just joking’. The phenomenon has been studied a great deal at the individual level and we know that pupils who engage in this sort of thinking are more often involved in bullying. However few studies have explored whether the phenomenon can be linked to bullying at the group level. We wanted to investigate this by studying classes in schools”, says Robert Thornberg.
The participants of the study were 1054 primary school pupils aged between 10 and 14, in 70 different classes from 29 schools in central and southern Sweden. They responded to a voluntary, anonymous questionnaire that measured collective moral engagement by way of statements such as ‘it's OK to hit to protect your friends’ and ‘insults between children don't harm anyone’. The questionnaire also included questions about whether the respondent has bullied or been bullied. Photo credit Magnus Johansson
The results showed that the aspect of the class climate that can be called collective moral disengagement was associated with the bullying prevalence in the class. Bullying and the risk of being bullied were lower in classes with low moral disengagement. In these classes the pupils felt that the class believed bullying was wrong without exception, that the bullied person is adversely affected and that those who bully cannot blame someone else. Conversely, bullying was more common in classes where the pupils more often believe that their classmates feel that bullying can be OK sometimes, that bullying is just ‘for fun’ and that bullying doesn’t do any great harm – that is, where collective moral disengagement was higher.
“The results point to the importance of teachers and other school staff working to make the pupils aware of the processes involved in moral disengagement. This can enable the pupils to detect and see through these processes when they are triggered in various situations”, says Robert Thornberg.
Collective moral disengagement and its associations with bullying perpetration and victimization in students. Robert Thornberg, Linda Wänström, Gianluca Gini, Kristen Varjas, Joel Meyers, Rasmus Elmelid, Alexandra Johansson & Emelie Mellander (2021). Educational Psychology, 41:8, 952-966, doi: 10.1080/01443410.2020.1843005