University of Illinois at Chicago

Is Moral Disengagement Really Maximal Moral Engagement?

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posted on 2019-08-01, 00:00 authored by Allison Mueller
The goal of this dissertation was to explore why people are willing to harm their political opponents. Although Bandura (1999) theorized that a variety of processes could license reprehensible behavior, I contended that moral justification (i.e., reconstruing harmful acts as supportive of a higher moral purpose) would be a primary path toward violence because it would preserve (or even enhance) people’s positive self-views. To the extent that people construe morally motivated violence to be in service of the greater good at personal risk, they may: (1) downplay the transgressiveness of their behavior, (2) focus on the morally mandated outcome achieved, (3) ultimately construe the behavior to be morally upstanding, and (4) temporarily enjoy an inflated moral self-concept. Results did not support these hypotheses. People strategically endorsed mild harms at contentious political rallies to serve their strong moral convictions (i.e., picketing and staging sit-ins). But they resisted endorsing severe harms against obnoxious protesters (e.g., pushing, kicking, or spitting at those targets), especially when they had a strong moral commitment to the issue at stake. Moreover, morally motivated endorsement of mild harms was never linked to boosts in moral self-image. Overall, these findings suggest a limit to morally motivated political engagement: People feel comfortable endorsing mild forms of activism to serve their strong moral convictions but not violent forms. Future research employing a variety of methodologies (e.g., field and archival methods) should continue exploring the psychological levers that enable people to commit atrocities.



Skitka, Linda


Skitka, Linda



Degree Grantor

University of Illinois at Chicago

Degree Level

  • Doctoral

Degree name

PhD, Doctor of Philosophy

Committee Member

Holbrook , Allyson Stahl , Tomas Kutlaca, Maja Quinn, Kimberly

Submitted date

August 2019

Thesis type



  • en

Issue date


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