Moral disengagement is a cognitive process of information re-interpretation that decouples peoples’ internal moral standards from their actions. To do so, individuals apply one or more of eight different cognitive mechanisms that block the translation of their moral standards into actions. This process allows people to behave unethically without being aware of the unsavory nature of their actions, and without experiencing distress[1a].

While we often attempt to behave morally, several aspects of our personality or our context can prompt us to morally disengage. Unsurprisingly, the consequences of moral disengagement tend to be quite negative, impacting individuals and collectives alike.

But while the specter of moral disengagement can sometimes looms large, there are actually several strategies that we can apply to prevent us from falling prey to moral disengagement.

Read on to know more about moral disengagement definitin and theory, how moral disengagement is implemented in practice (that is, the eight moral disengagement mechanisms), its antecedents and consequences, key examples of moral disengagement in practice, and useful tips on how to prevent moral disengagement.

Moral disengagement definition

Moral disengagement is a mental process that regulates the exercise of moral agency, allowing individuals to behave unethically despite the presence of internal moral standards.

Moral disengagement is achieved through the implementation of one or more of eight specific moral disengagement mechanisms that disrupt the self-regulatory processes that typically allow us to translate our moral standards into actual moral behavior[2]

Specifically, moral disengagement mechanisms allow people to act self-interestedly and/or unethically, without experiencing self-censure or guilt while at the same time helping them to maintain a positive self-image[3a].

Moral disengagement is considered a dynamic disposition – that is, as a property of individuals (i.e., an individual tendency) that can nevertheless be malleable to influences from the environment and how we interact with it[4].

Specifically, while people show specific tendencies to morally disengage over time and across situations, contextual influences can determine whether people morally disengage or remain grounded in their own values in any specific situation.

However, specific moral engagement or disengagement events can compound over time, reinforcing tendencies to either behave more or less in accordance with one’s own moral standards[5a]. It is even possible that over time (that is, as a result of repeated moral engagement or disengagement events), people can come to modify their own internal moral standards[6].

Contextual influences can come from many sources, whose influence varies throughout one’s life cycle. For example, children’s moral disengagement appears to be more heavily influenced by their home environment, while adolescents’ moral disengagement tends to be more heavily influenced by their peers[7] [8] [9]. The work context appears to be an important influence on adults’ moral disengagement[5b] [10a] [11a].

Moral disengagement theory

Why do people sometimes act at odds with their moral standards?

To answer this question, we first need to understand the basic process regulating our moral agency – that is, we need to understand how and why we develop cognitive structures enabling us to behave morally. Only then can we address the question of how and why we sometimes violate them.

So let’s start with a different question instead – how and why do people behave morally?

Thinking morally

Social cognitive theory[12] [13a] suggests that as we grow, we become acquainted with a variety of moral standards.

We learn them from a variety of mechanisms, including by observing others’ behavior, reflecting upon others’ reactions to our own behavior, and via direct communication of standards by relevant sources (such as parents, other caretakers, teachers, peers, institutions, readings, the society at large, etc.). 

Once we acquire and internalize them, moral standards serve as guidelines to promote moral conduct and prevent us from engaging in less desirable actions.

These standards are important because, if applied in practice, they allow us to fit into our groups and create larger cooperative structures that are critical to help us survive and thrive.

Acting morally

But thinking morally does not automatically convert into acting morally. To do so, we engage in a process called self-regulation.

Our self-regulatory system starts with self-monitoring – being mindful of our behavior or of our intentions to collect information on whether the way we are acting (or intending to act) matches our internal standards.

We subsequently engage in self-judgment, a process that operates as a comparator between our actual or anticipated conduct and our principles. This process allows us to detect actual or anticipated discrepancies between the two.

Finally, based on the information we collected in the two previous steps, we can engage in reactive self-influence. Self-influence is a process that operates through the anticipation of positive or negative self-sanctions, either promoting moral or preventing immoral behavior.

Specifically, moral behavior is promoted by anticipating positive self-reactions (e.g., knowing that we will feel good and self-worthy if we do so), and immoral behavior is prevented by anticipating negative self-reactions (e.g., anticipating that we will feel unworthy, regretful, and guilty if we do so)[14a].

Moral disengagement mechanisms

Despite their importance, self-regulatory functions only work if activated. As a consequence, it is possible for people to act at odds with their standards if they selectively disengage from their internal moral controls.

That is, people can temporarily switch off their carefully constructed system of anticipated positive and negative self-sanctions for moral and immoral conduct (respectively). Their internal moral standards are still there – they are just momentarily disengaged.

People decouple their internal controls from their behavior either by cognitively re-interpreting their own behavior, obscuring their role in its application, distorting its consequences, and/or by changing how they perceive the victim and/or the victim’s behavior[1b].

When re-interpreting their own behavior, people endow their harmful conduct with moral undertones, thus not only avoiding self-censure but also potentially promoting self-approval. People can re-interpret their own behavior via three different mechanisms:

  • Moral justification
  • Euphemistic labeling
  • Advantageous comparison

People can also obscure their agentic role in the behavior (that is, how their own choices and volitions impacted the chosen course of action and its consequences), thereby minimizing their contributions to the harm caused. Two specific mechanisms serve this function:

  • Displacement of responsibility
  • Diffusion of responsibility

People can also disengage from their internal controls by misrepresenting the actual consequences of their behavior. The only mechanism in this category is therefore aptly labeled disregard for or distortion of consequences.

Finally, by changing how they perceive the victim and/or the victim’s behavior, people shift the onus of their own conduct to the targets of their behavior. People can do so via two specific mechanisms:

  • Dehumanization
  • Attribution of blame
The eight moral disengagement mechanisms (moral justification, euphemistic labeling, advantageous comparison, displacement and diffusion of responsability, distortion of consequences, dehumanization, and attribution of blame) - Managing life at work

These mechanisms can operate together or separately – that is, people can use a variety of mechanisms together, only a few, or even just one, to morally disengage[13b].

Let’s examine each of the eight moral disengagement mechanisms[1c] [14b] in turn.

Moral justification

Moral justification enables people to see their actions as defensible and acceptable because they are re-interpreted as serving a socially and/or morally worthy purpose.

For example, a manager can justify not promoting a deserving and extremely competent employee to a higher position (which would make them a competitor for future promotions) by stating to themselves and others that the person is too valuable and necessary in their current position – indeed, that their current team or department would be unable to function without them. 

As another example, a company can justify maintaining long and fatiguing work days in dangerous conditions by considering how important the factory is as the single large employer for the surrounding community.

Euphemistic labeling

Euphemistic labeling occurs when language devices are used to represent a given conduct as acceptable or justified.

Euphemistic labeling can be implemented by using sanitizing language – that is, language that portrays the action as innocent, good, or otherwise camouflages it. For example, employees from a recently acquired company that is being disbanded by the buyer company may simply be “relocated” or “reassigned” to other areas of the company – words that mask possible demotions and even the need to physically move oneself and one’s family to a different location.

Another important form of euphemistic labeling involves the use of jargon, such as labeling extensive lay-offs (multiple people, sometimes entire communities, losing their livelihoods, often with little viable alternatives) as “downsizing” – or, serving the purpose even more effectively, “rightsizing”.

Advantageous comparison

In advantageous comparison, a given behavior is contrasted with perceived worse behavior, thus making it appear as if it is better than it actually is.

For example, a company can cite its rivals’ corrupt actions, thus making its less-than-legal behavior appear less harmful than it actually is. As another example, an employee can mention a colleague’s consistent pattern of late arrivals, thus making their own late arrival that week appear as a minor, possibly inconsequential, deviation from the schedule.

Displacement of responsibility

With displacement of responsibility, a shift is implemented concerning who is the entity responsible for the action. In this case, people may perceive that their actions had detrimental consequences, but they represent them as stemming from a higher authority or other external force – that is, they represent responsibility for their actions as lying elsewhere.

For example, a manager promoting a friend rather than a less-known, but more qualified employee, could say: “But the board told me to promote people we could trust!”

Diffusion of responsibility

Diffusion of responsibility enables people to dilute personal accountability such that responsibility for the harm caused now lies with multiple parties.

Diffusion of responsibility can be achieved by several means, one of which involves dividing a task by multiple people or entities such that each one is only responsible for a small fraction of the misbehavior. As a result, each party often performs actions that appear inoffensive in themselves. For example, a company dumping dangerous waste in the environment can do so by making different people responsible for small parts of the process such that no one perceives they are actually damaging the environment.

Another important means by which diffusion of responsibility is achieved is by delegating decision-making authority to a group, rather than a person. For example, if cost cuts need to be made, each committee member is likely to feel less responsible for the lay-offs if the decision is made by the committee than if they had to make that decision by themselves.

Disregard for or distortion of consequences

This mechanism includes a variety of actions aligned with the core theme of minimizing the seriousness of the consequences of one’s actions, including overlooking that harm was actually caused, stating that the consequences are less harmful than they actually are, and discrediting the evidence of harm.

For example, organizations can form chains of command that enable top decision-makers to be far removed from the consequences of their decisions, in essence becoming insulated from them by several hierarchical layers who actually carry out and implement decisions. As such, top decision-makers can overlook that harm was actually caused by their decisions (for example, they can overlook the damage that was caused to employee morale and to their mental health when a fierce internal competition plan is instituted).

As another example, an employee who submitted personal expenses for reimbursement can state that their expenses weigh close to nothing in the company’s overall budget.


Dehumanization occurs when the perpetrator views the target of their conduct as deserving harm to be caused to them, or simply as possessing less human qualities than other people or groups.

A process as commonplace as organizational bureaucracy, or a steep organizational hierarchy, can lead to the dehumanization of employees simply because this creates more impersonality – employees are far removed from those implementing bureaucratic procedures or from those making key decisions, thus coming to be seen less as individual people and more as a number in a spreadsheet.

But dehumanization is not just practiced by stereotypically big, faceless corporations. Individuals can engage in dehumanization too – they can, for example, deny a candidate’s application for a visa because the candidate has behaved in a way that was perceived as less culturally refined (thus “less human”) than other candidates.

Attribution of blame

When attributing blame, perpetrators shift the responsibility for the immoral behavior and the harm caused from themselves to the targets. That is, targets are viewed as having brought the responsibility for the harm onto themselves, while perpetrators see themselves as having reacted in self-defense to unjustified provocation.

Targets can come to believe this to be the case, further compounding the harm and inviting further abuse.

For example, a supervisor who has publicly yelled at an employee can later tell the employee that it is their own fault the event even happened: “I only did so because you presented work of such poor quality that it would ruin our presentation to the client”.

In the video below, you can see Professor Albert Bandura, founder of the moral disengagement theory, presenting an overview of the eight moral disengagement mechanisms.

Antecedents of moral disengagement

What leads people to morally disengage at work? Research has suggested that answers may lie not only on a variety of individual characteristics, but also on factors of the context (either more transient or more stable)[15a]. Below we present a consolidated list of well-establish findings on moral disengagement antecedents.

Individual differences

Are some people more likely to morally disengage than others? Research suggests that a few specific individual differences – factors such as personality and other stable individual characteristics – tend to be associated with different levels of individuals’ moral disengagement.

For example, individuals with higher levels of the following personal characteristics tend to exhibit higher levels of moral disengagement:

  • Psychopathy[16a] (i.e., a tendency to engage in interpersonal manipulation, experience a lack of empathy and remorse for misdeeds, and engage in erratic and irresponsible behavior);
  • Machiavellianism[17a] (i.e., a tendency to manipulate others for one’s own personal gain);
  • Callousness[18a] (i.e., a tendency to experience low levels of empathy and guilt for one’s misdeeds);
  • Impulsivity[18b] (i.e., a tendency to seek sensation and to behave recklessly and/or carelessly);
  • Cynicism[19a] (i.e., a tendency to experience frustration and disillusionment, and to distrust others);
  • External locus of control[19b] (i.e., a tendency to attribute control over outcomes in one’s life to chance or powerful others);
  • Psychological entitlement[20a] (i.e., a tendency to believe that one should receive favorable treatment across time and circumstances, regardless of whether it is warranted or not).

In contrast, individuals with higher levels of the following personal characteristics tend to exhibit lower levels of moral disengagement[17b] [21a] [22] [23a]:

  • Trait honesty-humility (i.e., a tendency to be sincere, humble, and fair);
  • Moral identity (i.e., a tendency to view being moral as an important part of one’s identity);
  • Trait empathy (i.e., a tendency to experience compassionate feelings towards others, and to understand their perspectives);
  • Trait guilt (i.e., a tendency to experience negative feelings when one’s conduct is judged as having fallen short of one’s moral standards);
  • Authenticity (i.e., a tendency to present oneself accurately both internally and externally, to strive for self-understanding, to avoid self-defensiveness, and to behave according to one’s true self).

Situationally-induced psychological states and individual experiences

Consistent with the idea that moral disengagement can be influenced by contextual factors, individuals can also find themselves in situations that tend to prompt different levels of moral disengagement. Thus, it is not only one’s personal characteristics that influence one’s probability to morally disengage, but also one’s circumstances.

For example, the following situationally-induced psychological states and individual experiences tend to elicit higher levels of moral disengagement:

  • Envy[24a]: people who compare themselves to others and as a result perceive that they both lack and desire the other person’s superior achievements, qualities, or possessions (i.e., people who feel envy) may attempt to reduce these feelings by viewing the other person as unworthy and their success as unjustified;
  • Resource depletion[25a]: people who lack resources may sometimes lack the capacity to exert moral self-regulation;
  • Organizational identification[26a]: people who strongly identify with their organization are more likely to view actions that benefit it as moral and justified, regardless of their appropriateness;
  • Perception of job insecurity[27a]: people who perceive they are powerless to influence whether or not they can retain a threatened job (especially when few outside options are available) are more likely to view actions that harm the company as justified;
  • Motivation for financial gain[28]: people who are solely motivated to achieve material/objective gains (as opposed to being motivated by their own self-realization) may focus more heavily on achieving their goals by (almost) any means necessary;
  • Motivation to protect one’s choices[29] (e.g., of buying clothes that are produced using unethical labor practices), relationships[30] (e.g., with close others who have engaged in unethical behavior), or one’s own behavior[31a] (e.g., previous instances of cheating): moral disengagement not only acts proactively, but also reactively, as a post-hoc interpretation to protect people from distress caused by previous unethical decisions[10b].

Team characteristics

Not much is yet known about the characteristics of teams that can promote moral disengagement. What research suggests so far, however, is that both team size and team dispersion (i.e., whether people work in close physical proximity to each other, or remotely) can influence team members’ moral disengagement.

Specifically, the larger the team, the more susceptible team members may be to engage in diffusion of responsibility and to attribute blame for misdeeds to other team members. Additionally, the more dispersed the team, the more susceptible team members may be to engage in dehumanization of other team members[32a].

Organizational systems, structures, and practices

Organizations develop a variety of formal and informal systems, structures, and practices to attain their goals, manage their day-to-day operations, and enable interaction among organizational actors.

Sometimes, perversely, having strong ethical infrastructures in place can be powerless to mitigate, and can even potentiate, individuals’ moral disengagement.

Specifically, companies can work hard to develop strong ethical cultures and climates, supported by formal and informal systems and practices, and enacted in day-to-day procedures.

Employees often come to develop strong identification with and commitment to such organizations. While these attitudes are typically associated with a variety of positive consequences, they can also make people overly trusting in their organization (which, as any person or entity, is fallible), and particularly interested in maintaining a positive self-image in the company.

As a result, they may not only be less likely to think deeply about morally-relevant decisions, but they may also become personally invested in, and strongly motivated to justify, the decisions made by the organization – which, despite all safeguards, are unlikely to always be equally moral.

Thus, while these systems can prevent the occurrence of blatant forms of unethical behavior, they can also lead to moral disengagement over more mundane forms of unethical behavior, which over time can compound and unintentionally create less moral cultures and climates[11b].

More generally, a few characteristics of the organizational context can promote moral disengagement, including:

  • Unethical organizational cultures and climates, such as cultures where unscrupulous behavior is tolerated and climates of generalized mistreatment[33a] [34].
  • Structural opportunities for employees to engage in self-interested behavior: people are often interested in obtaining beneficial outcomes for themselves, but they also want to be seen (and want to see themselves) as consistent and moral;
    • When the context provides structural opportunities to behave self-interestedly, these conflicting motivations can be achieved simultaneously by engaging in moral disengagement[3b].
  • Organizational politics: sometimes people perceive that their organizational environment is populated by people who engage in self-serving, typically not officially sanctioned, behavior intended to accrue them social and/or material benefits;
    • To protect themselves from such an environment, both as a coping mechanism and to enable the formulation of protective strategies, individuals can sometimes engage in moral disengagement[35].
  • Organizational injustice: perceiving that the organizational context (including its procedures, the interactions one has with its agents, and the outcomes one receives) is not fair can inhibit moral self-regulation, as complying with the regulations of such a context may no longer be perceived as legitimate[36];
  • Requirements to perform citizenship behaviors: making employees feel that they need to perform extra-role behaviors that benefit the organization, and that ordinarily should be performed of one’s own volition, generate feelings of distress and depletion that can dampen moral self-regulation[37].

Conversely, organizations can also create some safeguards to prevent moral disengagement. An important safeguard is to promote and develop ethical leaders, since ethical leadership has been found across several studies to prevent followers’ moral disengagement[38a] [39a].

Social contagion

Although moral disengagement is an internal process that occurs inside individuals, it is important to remember that individuals live a large portion of their lives (in particular their work lives) embedded within groups. Thus, one (or more) individual’s moral disengagement can spread to the rest of the group, and even to the organization.

Specifically, because group members typically interact relatively often, they can transmit information, understandings, emotions, transient states, etc. to each other. Thus, when one member of the group morally disengages, this can spread to other individuals in the group via social contagion processes. This process is even more likely when the person who morally disengages in the leader, given their higher levels of power and influence[40].

When these processes are strong and pervasive enough they can give rise to group moral disengagement, a phenomenon where the self-regulatory mechanisms of the group as a whole become compromised via individual group members’ application of any of the eight moral disengagement mechanisms discussed above[38b].

Moral disengagement can spread to others via social contagion processes - Managing life at work

Consequences of moral disengagement

The consequences of moral disengagement are overwhelmingly negative. They span a variety of individuals’ discretionary behaviors, and can even extend to the organization as a whole[15b].

Individual immoral behavior

In organizations, moral disengagement is associated with a host of negative behavioral consequences. For example, individuals who morally disengage are more likely to engage in the following behaviors:

  • Delinquent behavior[21b] (such as stealing and cheating);
  • Social undermining[24b] [25b] (behavior intended to make others look weak, incompetent, or otherwise harm their probabilities of attaining relational, social, or material success);
  • Unethical pro-organizational behavior[20b] [26b] (unethical behavior enacted to protect or enhance the interests of the organization, such as destroying incriminating evidence, or misrepresenting negative information as positive);
  • Workplace deviance, counterproductive work behavior, and unethical behavior at work[20c] [23b] [27b] [41](behaviors taken to harm either the organization or its employees, such as embarrassing others in public, intentionally working slowly, or taking organizational property home without permission);
  • Unethical decision-making[16b] [42] (making decisions that may be expedient and benefit oneself, but which are not based on sound ethical principles);
  • Use of deceptive negotiation tactics[43];
  • Harassment[33b] (interactions or procedure applications that cause intimidating or hostile environments at work);
  • Safety violations[44] (for example in the form of accident underreporting – not reporting injuries at work, often resulting in injury untreatment and preventing the cause of the accident to be addressed);
  • Social loafing[32b] (withholding of individual effort when one is working in a team context).

They are also more likely to display the following attitudes:

  • More lenient attitudes toward unethical negotiation tactics (such as lying or bribing)[21c] [45];
  • Turnover intentions, that is, intentions to leave the company[27c].

Resistance to positive moral influences

While moral disengagement may sometimes spread via social contagion mechanisms, the opposite may not always be true. Specifically, individuals displaying high levels of moral disengagement may be less susceptible to moral social influence and positive role models, such as ethical leaders[46].

This can have the pernicious effect of maintaining moral disengagement levels relatively high (or at least maintaining some pockets of it) in the organization, creating a relatively fragile environment that can be tipped in the wrong direction if left unchecked[11c].

Organizational corruption

We have seen above that organizational structures can lead people and groups to morally disengage. But the problem is more complex, since individual and/or group moral disengagement can also contribute to creating the very systems that subsequently influence more people to morally disengage and behave unethically.

Take for example organizational corruption – that is, unethical actions that favor organizational interests. Before it becomes institutionalized, corruption starts at the individual level – specifically, at individuals’ behavior and decisions that are morally questionable, but that are favorable to the organizations’ interests.

Interestingly, individuals who are more prone to moral disengagement may be more likely to make these key initial decisions, as they tend to make decisions regarding moral matters more expeditiously – that is, faster – in part because they use more simplified information and engage in less complex moral reasoning.

They may also be more likely to raise quicker through the ranks, because of their ability to act quickly in accordance with organizational interests. This enhances their power and consequentially their ability to set the tone for further socialization practices, and/or to spread moral disengagement via social influence and social contagion processes, perpetuating a cycle of organizational corruption[5c].

Moral disengagement examples


Enron was an energy, commodities, and services trading company whose collapse lead to losses amounting to billions of dollars and spurred heavy debate and legislation aimed at improving accounting practices and standards.

Founded in 1985, Enron conducted its early operations in the energy market. It acted as a trader of energy contracts, serving as an intermediary that negotiated contracts between natural gas producers and customers.

The company was hugely successful for a while, and started expanding its operations beyond the gas market to include other commodities and services. Concomitantly, an aggressive and internally competitive culture developed, with success increasingly measured by the ability to close as many lucrative contracts as possible, as fast as possible.

As the market took a downturn, the company’s operations began to suffer and profits shrank dramatically.

To appease shareholders and maintain an illusion of profitability, the company started to engage in shady accounting practices, where yet unrealized gains from selected trading contracts were included in current income statements as if they had already been accrued.

Simultaneously, troubled company assets and operations were transferred to “special purpose entities” – partnerships created with outside parties to keep toxic assets and operations away from official company books.

In 2001, as internal and external concerns started to mount about Enron’s accounting practices and financial statements, the company disowned several of the partnerships, and losses started to become apparent. At the same time, the accounting firm that had audited Enron started to destroy documents about the audits.

Several company executives, as well as key actors of the auditing firm, were eventually indicted. Some were found guilty and convicted, but not before billions from investors as well as Enron employees’ pension funds evaporated[47] [48].

How did they justify their actions? In part, they did so by invoking their role in creating a de-regulated market that could ultimately prove better and more efficient for producers and customers alike (moral justification)[49].

They also used euphemistic language to represent their conduct as acceptable or justified – for example, by saying things like “taking advantage of arbitrage opportunities” when describing fraudulent actions where Enron bought Californian power at cheap prices, routed it outside of the State, then sold it back again to California at inflated prices during power outage periods[50] [51].

This case is also an interesting example of the effects of social contagion on moral disengagement, given how it trickled down across the hierarchical chain. Indeed, unethical behavior from top executives as well as a harshly competitive climate pressured lower-level employees to morally disengage and engage in unethical behavior as well[15c]. Some employees later justified their actions by arguing that they were just following orders, further evidencing the mechanism of diffusion of responsibility[52].

Bernie Madoff

Bernie Madoff was a U.S. hedge-fund investment manager and former chairman of the NASDAQ (National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations) stock market. Once touted as a genius investor, he ran a Ponzi scheme that was able to take billions of dollars from clients over the course of a few decades.

In a Ponzi scheme, investors are attracted by the promise of unusually high returns. Such returns are not actually obtained by applying the money to real investment opportunities, but rather by recruiting new investors, whose money is in part passed on to the original investors as returns. The rest of the money is used by the fraudster for their own personal gains.

The fraud started around the early 1980s, and ran undetected for a long while, in part due to Madoff’s outstanding reputation as a financial prodigy, his cultivation of good relationships with regulators and wealthy people, and his aura of exclusivity.

In the case of Madoff, the longevity of his Ponzi scheme was also supported by his reliance on “feeder funds” – management funds that pooled money from several investors before entrusting it to Madoff, earning hefty commissions in the process.

But Ponzi schemes only work as long as new clients keep entering the scheme so that money keeps flowing in (to pay off older clients’ pretend returns), and as long as there are not too many requests for funds withdrawal (given that fraudsters do not have the necessary funds to cover them).

This is precisely what happened in the financial crisis of 2008. Not only did it become difficult to attract new investors, but Madoff also did not have the funds to cover the extensive withdrawal request made by existing clients. And so his fraud was eventually detected, and he was caught[53] [54].

In explaining his unethical conduct, Bernie Madoff used several moral disengagement mechanisms.

For example, he argued that his clients were actually accountable, as they were aware of the potential risks of the stock market (attribution of blame). He further suggested that the government was actually also responsible, as it consisted in the biggest Ponzi scheme of all, and that his actions paled in comparison (diffusion of responsibility and advantageous comparison)[11d].

His explanation is a vivid example of moral disengagement mechanisms operating in tandem to create a powerful buffer for the voice of conscience to kick in. Indeed, the mechanisms above allowed him to simultaneously cognitively re-interpret his own behavior, obscure his role in its application, and change how he perceived the victim and/or the victim’s behavior, leading to sustained unethical behavior over the course of several decades.

Check Bernie Madoff explaining how he engaged in the mechanism of moral justification in the video below.

Volkswagen emissions scandal

In 2015, following a long investigation, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revealed that a significant number of Volkswagen diesel vehicles sold in the U.S. were fitted with a “defeat device” – a software that allowed cars to detect when they were being tested for emissions, temporarily changing performance to display results that conformed with regulations. 

However, when outside of testing conditions, cars would resume their normal performance levels, emitting pollutants far above allowed levels. Estimates suggest that 40 times more oxides of nitrogen were released in actual driving as compared to test conditions. Irregularities in carbon dioxide estimates were also detected.

While the problem was detected in the U.S., the device was estimated to have been installed in further millions of cars around the globe.

Eventually, Volkswagen admitted to wrongdoing and issued a public apology. In the immediate aftermath of the scandal, several key executives resigned and the value of the company shares plummeted. The company further announced that it would set aside billions of dollars to recall or refit millions of cars worldwide, and eventually paid several billion dollars more in fines and settlements[55] [56a] [57a].

How was this possible? Among other factors, several moral disengagement mechanisms appear to have been involved.

For example, company management asked a team of engineers to develop the devices because the cars could not otherwise pass the stringent U.S. emissions tests, which would lose them access to a very lucrative market. This allowed the development team to displace responsibility for their actions to higher-level management[58].

Company management itself appears to have used this mechanism to displace responsibility away, suggesting that the problem was not a real ethical violation, but rather resulted from a faulty understanding by the company of the U.S. law (effectively displacing responsibility to confusing regulations and laws)[59a].

At the same time, engineers argued that oxides of nitrogen were less harmful than they actually were[59b] (disregard for or distortion of consequences). Moreover, they believed that fuel-efficient diesel could be an important avenue to combat climate change, and the stringent regulations imposed by the U.S. regulators could spell the demise of diesel vehicles before they could deliver on their promise[56b] (moral justification).

The Volkswagen emissions scandal is a sobering example of how multiple moral disengagement mechanisms, applied at multiple hierarchical levels, can combine to create a very harmful outcome. It is, however, also an example of how moral disengagement can be combatted, once detected – in this case, by an extensive program of compensation to affected parties and a renewed commitment to environmental protection[57b].

Check the video below for a breakdown of Volkswagen emissions scandal, including an example from top management that can be interpreted as a sign of displacement of responsibility.

How to prevent moral disengagement

Are there antidotes to moral disengagement? We have seen how the mechanisms of moral disengagement can creep in surreptitiously. Multiple factors can trigger them, compounding the danger that we will fall prey to them.

Do not despair, however, as this is not inevitable. In fact, researchers working on this area provide us with a few useful tips on how to prevent moral disengagement.

Tips for individuals

For individuals, these tips include[1d] [31b] [60] [61]:

  • Practice all steps of the self-regulation process. The more skilled we are at monitoring, assessing, and influencing ourselves, the more likely we are to behave according to our moral principles. Mindful and purposeful practice can help us engage with the process, recognize strong and weak spots, and develop robust safeguards that prevent moral action derailing.
  • Closely monitor societal, group, peer authority, or other forms of external influence on your behavior. Create a well-practiced detection system to notice when these influences may be leading you astray.
  • Practice taking responsibility for and acknowledging the harm caused by your actions (when actually applicable). Starting with small matters may help – if we keep the practice up, this may ease us into acknowledging responsibility for bigger matters, and even act as a preventive system for future transgressions.
  • Focus on others’ common humanity and remain sensitive to their plights. Doing so can elicit empathic and compassionate feelings linked to a strong sense of social responsibility or duty that can motivate moral, rather than immoral, action.
  • Monitor your own good deeds, and do not allow them to create excessive hubris and overconfidence in your capacity to always behave ethically. Indeed, quite ironically, research suggests that we can sometimes act unethically because we feel licensed to do so due to having performed a previous ethical act.
  • We tend to pay more attention to and give more extensive consideration to information that is more salient to us. Thus, drawing attention to our moral standards (such as carrying reminders) can help us maintain course in tempting situations.
  • Small, sometimes seemingly negligible, factors can sometimes lead us astray. Check our post on unsuspecting, but insidious sources of unethical behavior to get to know a few important ones and learn what to do about them, and keep attentive to other small things in our environments that can tip you off to the wrong path.

Tips for organizations

For organizations, a few simple actions may also come a long way in preventing moral disengagement either at the individual, team, or organizational level. For example:

  • Research has suggested that a simple training program outlining the theory and the mechanisms (i.e., the process) behind moral disengagement can be a useful first step to reducing moral disengagement[62]. Critical thinking interventions (that is, interventions focused on developing individuals’ ability to critically evaluate arguments and other information to arrive at more well-supported judgments or beliefs) can be useful in this regard too[63].
  • Mitigate the existence or influence of contextual factors that promote moral disengagement (such as climates fraught with competition, or cultures that tolerate unethical behavior and abuse). See this post for further information on how to do so.
  • Provide opportunities for resource replenishment. This is important because our moral awareness can become impaired when we are too tired and fatigued to function properly[64].
  • Ensure that organizational decisions are made in a transparent, consistent, unbiased, accurate, and ethical way, providing opportunities for relevant groups’ representativeness and for correctability (i.e., for modifying decisions that later prove to have been flawed)[65].
  • Train and promote ethical leaders that can act as role models and propagate, via social contagion, moral standards and the importance of abiding by them throughout the organization[39b].
    • However, take care that these ethical leaders do not become overly rigid or punitive – or even interpersonally abusive, due to fatigue and the license provided by previous ethical acts. In other words, without good planning and support, this type of leadership can sometimes backfire and lead to higher levels of moral disengagement instead[66] [67].
  • For companies already possessing strong ethical climates and cultures, ensure that ethical blindspots are addressed. Practices such as bringing in someone from a different area or appointing a trusted outsider as a “devil’s advocate” for important decisions can help raise awareness on collective blindspots. Instituting moments of ethical questioning of decisions (e.g., “Are all stakeholders accounted for, and is there really no harm done to any of them?”) can also be helpful[11e].
  • Employees can also be trained to reaffirm their core values as a way to provide personal perspective into organizational decisions, and to detect key expressions or reasonings they use revealing moral disengagement. Employees who are less identified with and/or committed to the company can also provide valuable input, as they may constitute more unbiased judges of the ethicality of organizations’ decisions[11f].


Hopefully today you have learned some helpful information about moral disengagement, including how it operates, how it is triggered, what are its consequences, and how it can be prevented.

If some of this information sounded bleak, do not despair – by remaining engaged with our moral standards, and effectively self-regulating our morally-relevant actions, we may be able to contribute to the creation of better organizations, and ultimately better societies.

As always, we thank you for trusting your time with Until next time, remain morally engaged.

References and further reading

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