How to know that someone is going to act unethically: moral disengagement

How to know that someone is going to act unethically

Moral Disengagement

Moral disengagement: How to know if someone is going to act unethically

In my last article How to predict unethical behaviour I looked at research that showed:

  • The 2 primary predictors of unethical behaviour, and
  • The 3 precursors of moral disengagement

Today we are going to have a look at what the research says about the actual process people have to undergo to morally detach themselves from their decisions in order to act unethically.

No O.R.? No View 


If you recall from my last article we talked about the process of moral disengagement that has to occur before most people (psychopaths excluded) can engage in unethical behaviour. This means that they have to detach or separate themselves from the decisions they are about to make. In order to do this the research has found that a number of conditions need to be present.

In effect the conditions have to be right inside the person and they are likely to have:

  1. Lower level of self-awareness and reflection.
  2. Lower levels of what is known as self-organisation or congruency.
  3. Lastly that the individual has reduced levels of ability to regulate their own emotions and behaviour.

(See the previous article for an explanation of these)

Moral Disengagement

It has been found that in order for people to engage in unethical behaviours such as unfair practices, cheating, manipulating data, bullying etc. they first have to rationalise or disengage from their own moral compass or standards and those of society in general in a process known as moral disengagement.

Moral disengagement predicts unethical behaviour


The process of moral disengagement

The process by which people become morally disengaged is fairly well understood these days. Moral disengagement is usually a four stage process whereby the individual:

  1. Firstly has to mentally reconstruct or tell themselves a story or context where the action or actions being or about to be taken cannot be viewed as being immoral or unethical. This can include recourse to devices like ‘others are doing it’, or ‘it’s not against the law’ for example.
  2. Secondly they will usually reduce their own sense of importance or agency in the actions. This is usually done by blaming others, the organisation, situation or context as the driver or originator of the actions.
  3. Next they will fail to see or deny the consequences of the actions being undertaken or their inaction
  4. Lastly they will need to change how they perceive and regard the victim(s) by either downgrading their status, importance or the effect and impact on them.

This research reports on 2 separate studies conducted by the researchers on 213 and 231 participants in Germany last year.


The first finding

Their first finding was that general moral disengagement is a very strong predictor of unethical behaviour.


In my next article in this series I will look at:

  1. The role and power of a situation to set off the process of moral disengagement,
  2. The actual process people have to undergo to start to act unethically, and
  3. The effect authenticity has on this whole process of moral disengagement and the development of unethical behaviour and thinking.

The Step-by-Step Guide to How Unethical Behaviour Develops


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David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page

  • Danny says:

    I am really interested in the article you are going to write about the process someone goes through when they disengage from their morality. I have known people who have done this and that switch was such a jarring thing that I’ve wondered how it happens and why it happens. When will these other articles of yours be posted? I definitely do not want to miss them!

  • Sarah Jo says:

    I do find it interesting how people are able to convince themselves to change a belief or moral stance. I have seen people, even my own family, say one thing to me when they are judging me or belittling something I think or do and then they will turn around moments after and do something so utterly unbelievable. I often am left wondering how this happens and what it takes to get them to this point. You have shed some light into the process involved so thank you for helping to make this a little less befuddling if no less annoying and saddening for me.

    • M.J. says:

      It’s a bit different for me…. I find it almost impossible to understand how someone can turn their backs on a basic moral code and how someone gets so absorbed in themselves and their own interests that they ar willing to lie, cheat, and hurt others in order to be successful themselves. This idea seems so foreign to me that I can not figure out how this thought or decision even comes to someone!

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