Applied Psychology OPUS

Investigating the Role of Moral Processes in Enabling Aggression and in Political Discourse

Emil Hafeez

International and civil war, genocide, racial violence, and forced migration are all violent political conflicts of the last century which exemplify aggression, which is defined here as intentional harmdoing in an interpersonal or intergroup interaction (Graumann, 1998). Narratives, which are considered  to be vehicles for sharing and organizing information, making meaning, and connecting people (Baumeister, Zhang, & Vohs, 2004), and divergences between narratives are central in creating and perpetuating these and other aggressive conflicts (Bilali & Vollhardt, 2013; Goldberg & Ron, 2014; James & Foster, 2013). Conflict narratives contain divergences which frame perpetrators’ aggressive acts as immoral transgressions against victims desiring a morally just outcome (e.g. Čejajić-Clancy, Effron, Halperin, Liberman, & Ross, 2011; Rimé, Kanyangara, Yzerbyt, & Paez, 2011; Sullivan, Landau, Branscombe, Rothschild, & Cronin, 2013; Wohl & Branscombe, 2005).

Moral systems, comprised of cognitions and behaviors which found all individuals’ pursuit of good and bad (Bandura, 1999; Bandura, 2001; Bandura, Barbaranelli, Caprara, & Pastorelli, 1996), are co-developed over time by individuals and the society in which they live. During moral system development, individuals monitor and judge when a corrective reaction (e.g., scolding or guilty thoughts) from themselves or members of their social environment is necessary (Bandura, 1999; Bandura et al., 1996). While striving to avoid these condemning corrections and feel self-worth, individuals internalize regulations, or self-sanctions, which reduce behavior they ought to avoid (Bandura, 2001; Bandura, et al., 2001). As such, self-sanctions, informed by social- and self-monitoring processes, shape individuals’ moralities. Conflicts’ narratives can be examined for socially influential moral content affecting their audiences’ self-sanctions.

The present review will examine two prevalently researched processes called moral disengagement and moral agency (Bandura, 1999; Bandura, 2001) as they relate to aggression and recent political narratives regarding the War on Terror (Bush, 2003). Moral disengagement involves the circumnavigation of moral self-sanctions via cognitive reconstruals, and moral agency involves referencing one’s moral system to exonerate oneself (Bandura, 1999; Bandura, 2001; Bandura et al., 1996).

These processes become apparent in a conflict such as the War on Terror, more recently called the Overseas Contingency Operation by the President Obama administration (Office of the Undersecretary of Defense, 2014). The war continues around the globe with a counterterrorism mission comparable to that of when it began; indeed, it also still involves a high death and monetary toll (Emmerson, 2014; Office of the Undersecretary of Defense, 2014). The two processes of moral disengagement and moral agency are integral in enabling interpersonal and intergroup aggression, and are part of conflict-generating political narratives visible in recent discourse. To start, the present review will examine these two processes’ roles in enabling aggression.  

Moral Disengagement

Moral disengagement plays a central role in individuals’ justification of aggression (Bandura et al., 2001; McAlister, 2001). Moral disengagement is a process of cognitive restructuring which avoids triggering moral self-sanctions by reconstruing inhumane behavior as harmless or good (Aly, Taylor, & Karnovsky, 2014; Bandura, 1999; Bandura et al., 1996; McAlister, Bandura, & Owen, 2006) via eight mechanisms (i.e., advantageous comparisons, euphemistic language, displacement of responsibility, diffusion of responsibility, minimizing consequences, moral justification, attribution of blame, and dehumanization; Bandura, 1999; Bandura, 2001; Bandura et al., 1996). These mechanisms reframe individuals’ cognitive evaluations such that aggressive behavior is no longer prevented by their self-sanctions and can be considered a viable course of action (Bandura, 2004; Caprara et al., 2014; Leidner, Castano, Zaiser, & Giner-Sorolla, 2010).
Indeed, studies support that moral disengagement directly influences aggressive behavior in civilian samples (Bandura et al., 1996, Bandura et al., 2001; McAlister, 2001; McAlister et al., 2006; Paciello, Fida, Tramontano, Luponetti, & Caprara, 2008). Increases in moral disengagement are linked to increases in injurious behavior, short-tempered reactions to mild provocation, hostile rumination (Bandura et al., 1996), severity of punitive electric shocks to nonexistent recipients (who participants thought were real) in a memory and learning task (Bandura, Underwood, & Fromson, 1975), and physical and verbal interpersonal aggression (Bandura et al., 2001; Paciello et al., 2008). Politically speaking, research also links higher moral disengagement following the 9/11 attacks on the United States to greater support for the immediate aerial bombardment of Iraq (McAlister et al., 2006) and to immediate military attacks on suspected terrorist cells (McAlister, 2001; McAlister et al., 2006).

Moral disengagement also relates to aggression in more nuanced ways. Specifically, mechanisms of moral disengagement mediate the relations between various socio-cognitive factors (e.g., in-group biases and negative dispositional tendencies like irritability or rumination) and aggressive outcomes (Bandura et al., 2001; Castano, 2008; Caprara et al., 2014; Leidner et al., 2010; McAlister, 2001; McAlister et al., 2006). For example, in-group glorification is normally considered a dangerous group process because it significantly predicts the likelihood of aggressive behavior (Castano, 2008; Leidner et al., 2010). However, moral disengagement actually mediates the relation between in-group glorification and support for capital punishment (Leidner et al., 2010); it partially explains in-group glorification’s predictive power towards aggressive punishment support. Moral disengagement also significantly moderates the relation between aggressive behavior and hostile rumination (i.e., preserving reliatory feelings toward another in response to self-threatening provocation; Caprara et al., 2014), and between aggressive behavior and self-regulatory efficacy (i.e., belief that one can effect desired outcomes and prevent undesirable ones by their actions; Bandura et al., 2001). However, moral disengagement is not the only construct worth considering when examining moral processes enabling aggression.

Moral Agency

Moral agency refers to the capacity to know, pursue, and proactively engage in actions which individuals consider parallel to their moral system (i.e., what they consider right rather than wrong; Bandura, 2001; Caprara et al., 2014). Adherence to the self-sanctions that prevent us from behaving immorally helps maintain coherence of and behavior parallel with our moral system (Bandura, 2001). However, this can also be problematic: specifically, there is evidence supporting that self-efficacious adherence to one’s moral system can enable aggressive behavior (Hafez, 2006; McAlister et al., 2006; Rogers et al., 2007; Swartz & Scott, 2013). This is because some moral systems can foster aggression, such as in the case of religion and cultural systems which offer violence as means to defend one’s dignity or to seek revenge (Hafez, 2006; McAlister et al., 2006; Rogers et al., 2007; Swartz & Scott, 2013). It is important to note it is not the actual religious teachings that foster violence, but rather an individual’s aggressive approach to the religion’s offered template (Hafez, 2006; McAlister et al., 2006; Rogers et al., 2007).

Furthermore, agentic moral conviction like that found in extremist religious moral systems is associated with greater social and political intolerance as well as a greater likelihood an individual will care more about a morally fair outcome than a morally fair process (Skitka & Mullen, 2002). For example, many extremists believe they are acting in accordance with their religious moral imperatives and showing their faith to a higher power by engaging in terrorism against intolerable entities, like the United States (Hafez, 2006; McAlister et al., 2006; Rogers et al., 2007). Terrorists’ destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11th, 2001, in the United States specifically exemplifies a group of individuals adhering to their moral systems by behaving aggressively (Skitka & Morgan, 2014).

Overall, there is support that aggressors cognitively justify acts of aggression via the complementary processes of moral disengagement and moral agency. What follows is an examination of the manifestation of those two dangerous processes in recent political narrative.

Morality in Political Discourse

Political discourse analyses investigate specific language usage within speeches, interviews, press releases, and other qualitative linguistic material to identify rhetorical trends surrounding moral, military, legal, social, economic, and other contentious realms (Esch, 2010; Jackson, 2007; Lazar & Lazar, 2004; Leudar, Marsland, & Nekpavil, 2004; Pilecki, Muri, Hammack, & Clemons, 2014). Within U.S. presidential administrations’ narratives about the War on Terror, politicians’ language exemplifies interrelated moral processes in its attempt to organize and explain acts of political aggression. The broadest hierarchical level of moral content organization within the narrative is the establishment and operation within a dualistic structure of “us/them” (Leudar et al., 2004, p. 246). Establishing a dualistic in-group, out-group structure allows politicians to imply that the competing moral system is the polar opposite of their administration and audience’s (Lazar & Lazar, 2004). This binary “us/them” framework explicitly uses the advantageous comparison mechanism of moral disengagement, which is to say it exploits contrast to reconstrue behavior as morally acceptable and thereby morally exonerate one’s self or in-group (Bandura, 1999; Bandura et al., 2001). It disengages the in-group members’ self-sanctions (Leudar et al., 2004; Pilecki et al., 2014) and simultaneously purports moral agency by claiming adherence to the in-group’s moral system (Esch, 2010; Jackson, 2007).

This “us/them” structure can be seen in public statements by the United States’ George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations (Esch, 2010; Jackson, 2007; Lazar & Lazar, 2004; Leudar et al., 2004), Great Britain’s Tony Blair (Leudar et al., 2004), and Al-Qaeda’s Osama Bin Laden (Leudar et al., 2004). For example, when George W. Bush characterized his moral system as defending goodness and freedom, he simultaneously construed himself as positively moral while painting the opponent as an immoral defender of evil and oppression (Esch, 2010; Leudar et al., 2004). Such a dynamic is apparent in a speech to the nation, in which he said the following:

Ours is the cause of human dignity; freedom guided by conscience, and guarded by peace. This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind…and the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it. May God Bless America. (Bush, 2002a).

This dualistic structure extends so far as to plainly state “we are in a conflict of good against evil,” (Bush, 2002b; Esch, 2010, p. 376; Jackson, 2007). The logic within these statements claims superiority while demonizing and derogating the other, allowing politicians to deny the opponent any moral considerations whatsoever (Lazar & Lazar, 2014; Pilecki et al., 2014). Such extremism in rhetoric is considered to support morally questionable methods, including extreme, systematic torture (Jackson, 2007) and ceding Guantanomo Bay Camp X-Ray detention facility detainees coverage of the third Geneva Convention only “for the most part… to the extent [the Conventions] are appropriate,” (Rumsfeld, 2002, as cited in Kinsella, 2005).

The use of the moral disengagement mechanism of dehumanization (Bandura, 1999; Bandura et al., 1996) further specifies the problematic “us/them” exploitative structure towards “civilization v. barbarism” (Esch, 2010, p. 366; Kinsella, 2005; Lazar & Lazar, 2004). Dehumanization appears explicitly, in the characterization of opposition members as inferior humans by calling them “a group of barbarians” or otherwise invariably barbaric (Bush, 2001 as cited in Esch, 2010, p. 82; Kinsella, 2005; Lazar & Lazar, 2004), and claiming their extreme hatred of everything civil, cultural, or progressive (Kinsella, 2005). The opposition is framed as hate-filled, cold-blooded murderers of the innocent, whereas the United States is a nation of the compassionate and loving, “who heal the broken hearts of little Iraqi girls” (Bush, 2008). The characterization extends towards more explicit dehumanization, with the Bush administration proclaiming the terrorist and Iraqi insurgency opposition as both predatory animals (Leudar et al., 2004) and as untamed “parasites” (Bush, 2002c as cited in Lazar & Lazar, 2004, p. 236) on multiple occasions. Indeed, this narrative can be considered as a necessary step in creating a social legitimacy such that the audience is more prepared to exonerate dehumanizing injustices committed by the in-group, as noted by Jackson’s 2007 article regarding the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.


Overall, there is support for moral disengagement and moral agency’s involvement in enabling aggression (Bandura et al., 1996, Bandura et al., 2001; McAlister, 2001; McAlister et al., 2006; Paciello et al., 2008), and their appearance in the political discourse of recent years (Esch, 2010; Jackson, 2007; Kinsella, 2005; Lazar and Lazar, 2004; Leudar et al., 2004). This review hopes to bring attention to, empirical conduct with, and accountability for these moral processes in aggression and political discourse. However, the findings discussed are based upon research that is limited in several ways. Literature has yet to investigate the situations where an individual is likely to morally disengage versus act agentically, and why they may employ one, the other, or both processes. Additionally, there is little research attempting to utilize these moral constructs to change political narratives and thereby change or intervene in political scenarios.
Ideally, future research should seek to establish precedents and grow knowledge in these unexplored directions. Experimental and quasi-experimental studies could explore why these processes occur in certain scenarios and seek culturally sensitive linguistic interventions aiming to reframe these moral processes towards reconciliatory narratives. Fortunately for interventions, adjusting narratives’ content can foster positive intergroup relationships and reconciliation for the nations and individuals exposed to them (Goldberg & Ron, 2014; Sibley, Liu, Duckitt, & Khan, 2008).

Finally, it is crucial to alert those in positions of political and social leverage to become more wary of the narratives they create, as these narratives may contain dangerous moral messages enabling aggression being passed down to the listening population at large. If Jackson (2007) is correct about aggressive political discourse influencing the population’s attitude towards the systematic torture at Abu Ghraib, then concern and intervention is necessary to prevent further injustices.


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