Moral Disengagement

Michael Church and Charles Brooks

We often change our minds about things. Early in the pandemic, many medical experts felt masks were of minimal use because the thinking at the time was that the virus was transmitted primarily from surfaces. Eventually it became clear that transmission was through the air, and social distancing and wearing masks suddenly became a primary defensive action. In this case, it was adaptive and wise for medical experts to change their minds.

Sometimes, however, we are neither wise nor rational, and we change our minds because of the indoctrinating influence of others. For instance, throughout the 1960s there were a variety of conspiracy theories that some people accepted. Marylyn Monroe died in 1962 of a drug overdose, but a few believed she was murdered by the government because of her alleged and nefarious ties to Jack and Robert Kennedy. Another belief grew that because of the counterculture, antigovernment movement of the 1960s – make love not war – the government flooded the food and water supply with LSD to pacify the population. My favorite was that United Nations troops would arrive on our shores in black helicopters to overthrow the US government.

From a psychological perspective, what’s fascinating about people who come to accept a conspiracy theory, no matter how bizarre or irrational, is how they hang on to the new belief in the face of contradictory evidence. I recently overheard a person say, “Of course, Obama wasn’t a legal president; he was born in Africa.” Good lord, even Trump eventually admitted that his birther argument was wrong. Someone also told me several days ago, “Did you see Biden? He looked different, didn’t he? That wasn’t him, you know. There are three or four doubles who fill in for him because he sleeps most of the time.”

Many people, once they make a decision – especially if publicly announced – are resistant to changing their mind because they want to see themselves as consistent, and appear that way to others. Also, the more emotional involvement they have in the decision, the more resistant they are to changing their mind. It is truly remarkable how people can justify and rationalize just about any decision, and do so without feeling guilt, regret, shame, or remorse, even if circumstances suggest they made a bad decision. Social psychologist Albert Bandura called this process Moral Disengagement. People can justify virtually any decision or action they take, even self-destructive actions that are also hurtful to others. Shame is irrelevant. You may think that shaming someone will encourage them to change their belief, but it won’t. In fact, it is likely to raise their defensive shields more strongly to resist facts that speak against their belief.

Challenging someone’s irrational beliefs – such as, by imposing a vaccine or mask mandate – can also lead them to verbal, even physical, violence. Imagine this conversation:

“Sir, why did you threaten that school board member?”

“Because she voted to require my kids to wear a mask in school. She is evil and trying to harm my kids.”

“But, sir, she says she wants to protect the children.”

No matter what he replies, he is thinking – possibly at a subconscious level but definitely revealing a bizarre display of twisted psychological machinations – “She is evil because I’m attacking her. I only attack evil people who threaten me and my family.” Note how he merges his belief with his actions. The board member is evil because, “I am threatening her, and I am threatening her because she is evil!” Ignoring the context of this example, the broader coping lesson here is that you could easily act in an inappropriate way to justify your beliefs. When your mind observes your action, it is straightforward to conclude that the action is justified; you attack someone because you believe they’re evil, and your attack confirms for you that they are indeed evil. The problem is, this moral disengagement is a lousy way to cope with stress because the process ignores the importance of personal values in the coping process. When you divorce what you say, do, and believe from the ethics, standards, and morals of society – doing the right things for the right reasons – your stability, social conscience, and autonomy are sacrificed. The damage to self-empowerment and your ability to cope with your stressors is significant. You discard critical thinking, ignore the advice of experts, and blindly follow the misinformed herd. Your honor, dignity, self-esteem, autonomy, and self-sufficiency are all sacrificed on an altar of dependency on others. You must constantly live in a world of denial to avoid realizing your inability to control how you live; you are now vulnerable to feelings of helplessness, followed by depression, followed by chronic self-damaging actions that rob you of your ability to cope with your stressors. All because your life is not guided by a stable set of personal values.

Moral Disengagement boils down to bullying. Values are cast aside to cover up one’s personal inadequacies and insecurities.

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