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How people do bad things: turning off moral controls

STANFORD -- How could Congress vote against curbing automatic weapons on the same day a gunman uses one to commit a massacre in Texas? How could Ivan Boesky advocate greed to business school graduates? How did Watergate conspirators become lawbreakers?

The answer, according to Stanford University psychologist Albert Bandura, lies in the ability of people to selectively activate and disengage their internal moral controls.

"The different mechanisms of moral disengagement help to explain how otherwise considerate people can perform reprehensible acts," he said.

Psychologists have studied extensively how people develop morality. Now they are also examining how they selectively turn off their moral controls.

The findings, Bandura said, indicate that "conducive social conditions rather than monstrous people" are required to produce heinous deeds.

If the public better understood how moral disengagement works, Bandura said, "they would not be naively looking for who holds the smoking gun. Nowadays, most people who commit reprehensible acts are too sophisticated to leave a trail of smoke. They intentionally diffuse or displace responsibility in ways that escape blame."

There are "four major points in the self-regulatory process at which internal moral control can be disengaged from detrimental conduct," Bandura writes in the 1991 Handbook of Moral Behavior and Development. Self sanctions can be turned off by:

Before committing an act they would normally find repugnant, some people work toward portraying the act as serving a moral purpose.

Boesky developed a moral justification for greed on Wall Street. Members of Congress justify voting against a curb on automatic weapons by appeal to the constitution and the right to self protection. "They ignore widespread killing with guns in our society and the public outcry against automatic weapons," Bandura said.

People also use euphemistic language to gain social acceptance for reprehensible conduct. Watergate participants did not talk of themselves as criminal conspirators but rather as "team players" carrying out a "game plan," Bandura said. Political candidates often use "the agentless passive" voice to make human actions seem as if they were the work of nameless forces, or they use outlandish comparisons and "colorful metaphors that change the nature of culpable activities."

This can be the "protectability" designed for the president and others in the chain of command of the Iran-Contra Affair or the everyone- does-it defense offered by many white-collar criminals when they are caught breaking a law.

Intermediaries in a nasty chain of actions free themselves of responsibility more easily than can the person who gave the order or who pulls the trigger, Bandura said. The more removed people are from the consequences of their actions or the more a task is fractionated, the easier it is to overcome a person's reluctance to harm other humans.

The tobacco and gun industries have long used this technique, denying their products harm others, Bandura said.

Some senators displayed this tendency in the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, Bandura said. They argued that, even if Thomas had acted improperly, Hill must have done something to bring it on herself. Imputing blame "operates as a prominent disengagement mechanism in sexually assaultive behavior towards women," Bandura said.



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