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Moral Disengagement Harms Children

Children lacking empathy typically have difficulty interpreting visual cues regarding others’ emotions, and also express difficulty relating to others and understanding how others might feel (Bossenmeyer, 2010). Research has shown that some children who bully show little empathy (Bullock, 2002). One study has demonstrated that low levels of empathy have been related to more frequent involvement in bullying (Gini, Albiero, Benelli, & Altoè, 2007). Furthermore, it has been shown that students who bully tend to display less empathic awareness than their peers who do not engage in bullying behaviors (Warden & Mackinnon, 2003).

Some researchers argue that students who bully are actually adept at reading social cues; these students use their ability to engage in perspective-taking to prey on other students (Olweus, 1999). However, a lack of empathy has been found to be common among those who fail to appropriately react when witnessing the distress of others. Watching others in pain appears to serve as a reward for those who bully others, thus suggesting that a lack of empathy leads to inappropriate responses when a student is being victimized (Decety, Michalska, Akitsuki, & Lahey, 2010).

Students generally engage in bullying behaviors because they either have strong needs for power and dominance or find satisfaction in causing injury and suffering to other individuals (Olweus, 1999). An additional characteristic that may set those who bully apart from their peers is moral disengagement; individuals will act aggressively in order to achieve what they perceive as morally right and will subsequently consider any aggressive actions take to obtain such a goal to be justifiable (Alvarez & Bachman, 2008).

Numerous studies have advocated for the role of moral disengagement, especially high levels of moral disengagement, in the development and maintenance of bullying behaviors (Gini, 2006; Gini, Pozzoli, & Hymel, 2013; Hymel, Schonert-Reichel, Bonanno, Vaillancourt, & Rocke Henderson, 2010; Pozzoli, Gini, & Vieno, 2012). In a study looking at the moral emotions experienced by bullies, compared to victims and bystanders (Menesini, Sanchez, Fonzi, Costabile, & Feudo, 2003), results showed that bullies endorsed higher moral disengagement and displayed more egocentric reasoning. Specifically, one form of moral disengagement is indifference, which is expressed by the lack of emotions in response to a harmful behavior towards victimized students (Menesini, Sanchez, Fonzi, Costabile, & Feudo, 2003). This lack of empathetic feelings has been found among many children who bully others, thus strengthening the connection that low levels of empathy appear to be a contributing factor for children’s engagement in bullying behaviors.

IINII uses a revolutionary Design Thinking process to help your school community gain an understanding of one’s sense of self, as well as developing an understanding of students’ and parents’ values; having an understanding of one’s values matters because research has shown that it is linked to better well-being, less stress, and increased confidence in one’s ability to succeed. IINII has extensive experience in building and using an Indigenous research paradigm.

Understanding students’ values can be developed with culturally sustaining practices that reflect a student’s identity and experience. Particularly helpful is focusing efforts on cultural competence and relevance and providing opportunities for students to practice bridging differences between diverse identities in a safe environment. To learn how you can create a dynamic youth-centered environment that honors the unique values of your students and parents, visit our website at, or contact us at or 1800-507-2502.

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