Moral Disengagement and Student Misbehavior in Physical Education.

Author:Hsu, Wei-Ting
Position::Research article - Report


In the context of physical education, some troubling behaviors such as shirking, skipping class, idleness, disrespect, and talking out of turn have a negative impact on the learning environment (Goyette et al., 2000; Kulinna et al., 2006). More seriously, aggressive behaviors such as bullying and fighting with others occasionally occur during a physical education class (Weiss et al., 2008). Studies on physical education have showed that students' negative behavior not only affects teaching quality but it also interferes with peer learning (Cothran et al., 2009; Kulinna et al., 2006). Therefore, it is important to identify ways to reduce students' misbehaviors in physical education.

Current studies on students' misbehaviors in physical education have concentrated on behavior types and development of measurement tools. For example, Goyette et al. (2000) categorized students' negative behaviors in physical education into three types. In terms of measurement tool development, a more representative study is the Physical Education Classroom Instrument (PECI) developed by Cothran and Kulinna (2007). The PECI is a self-reported scale comprising 59 questions and 6 factors. In order to enhance the usability of tests, Krech et al. (2010) simplified the PECI and proposed a short-form version that modified the original six-factor PECI into a five-factor scale with 20 items. In terms of follow-up extended studies, Agbuga et al. (2010) adopted the PECI to examine the correlation between achievement goal orientation and negative behaviors of students. Their results showed that students' performance orientation can positively predict various negative behaviors and mastery orientation can negatively predict various negative behaviors in physical education. Additionally, this study revealed that, if students' achievement goal orientation is aligned towards the performance orientation, negative behaviors are more likely to emerge. Conversely, if students' achievement goal orientation is aligned towards mastery orientation, negative behaviors are less likely to emerge. These studies have made a great contribution to the literature on student misbehavior in physical education.

However, although a number of studies have been conducted on students' behaviors (Cothran and Kulinna, 2007; Cothran et al., 2009; Kulinna et al., 2006) and ideal measurement tools have been developed (Krech et al., 2010), the existing research on students' misbehaviors does not provide sufficient insight into the antecedents of the misbehavior. More specifically, since we have not yet been able to explain the psychological mechanism of students' display of misbehaviors, current strategies of physical education class management are mostly derived from practical experience, rather than theory-based research results. Considering the inadequate research results on this issue, it is necessary to explore students' psychological mechanisms contributing to their misbehaviors in physical education through a theoretical framework.

One approach to guide this investigation is the mechanism of moral disengagement proposed by Bandura (1991). After a comprehensive review of literature on moral issues (Kavussanu, 2008), moral disengagement has been identified as a psychological mechanism that can explain the misbehaviors of individuals. Bandura's (1991) social cognitive theory identifies various psychosocial factors, including the consequences of one's actions, in defining behavior as moral. He also describes how moral conduct is regulated. Individuals may experience guilt or pride when engaging in moral behaviors, depending on the nature of their behaviors. Such reactions result from self-monitoring and judgment regarding these actions. Although this process is thought to regulate moral conduct, individuals do not always act the way they should. While conducting the behaviors that are contrary to one's moral reasoning, one may selectively adopt the mechanisms of moral disengagement to avoid self-evaluative emotional reactions, such as guilt. Additionally, some psychosocial mechanisms in moral disengagement allow individuals to cognitively construe transgressive behaviors into benign or laudable acts (Bandura, 1991). Therefore, the mechanisms of moral disengagement proposed in Bandura's (1991) social cognitive theory were adopted as the framework in the current study, to examine the antecedents of student misbehavior in physical education.

Bandura (1999) specifically proposed the following eight mechanisms of moral disengagement. (1) Moral justification: this mechanism involves the cognitive reconstruction of behaviors. People do not ordinarily engage in harmful conducts unless they morally justify such actions. In this process, aggressive behaviors are made morally and socially acceptable by attaching them with social worth or moral purposes (i.e., reframing a personal attack against opponents during a game as a means to honor the team). (2) Euphemistic labeling: euphemistic language is frequently used to make consequences of harmful conducts less unpleasant and more acceptable by concealing aggressive behaviors in innocent or sanitizing parlance (i.e., saying "I am only letting my emotions out" when pushing or provoking others). (3) Advantageous comparison: in this mechanism, behaviors are compared against counterparts that are more serious. By exploiting the contrast principle, reprehensible behaviors can be made more acceptable (i.e., comparing cursing with injuring others in order to highlight its harmless nature). (4) Displacement of responsibility: individuals view their aggressive behaviors as the result of the demands of authorities or social pressure, and not their personal responsibility. Thus, as the individual is not viewed as the actual agent of such actions, the self-condemning reactions can be spared (i.e., a foul made by the player was demanded by the coach). (5) Diffusion of responsibility: the sense of responsibility may be diffused by division of labor, group decision-making, or group action. Individuals may act more ruthlessly in a group because their actions may not be held personally accountable. (i.e., "Everyone is cheating, so it's okay for me to cheat too"). (6) Disregard or distortion of consequences: individuals diminish or overlook the negative consequences caused by their harmful actions. As long as the harmful results are minimized, distorted, or ignored, the self-condemnation is less likely to be activated (i.e., "The kind of injury that I caused my opponent will heal in no time, so its fine"). (7) Dehumanization: individuals deprive the human characteristics or attributes animalistic qualities to the victims of their aggressive actions so that self-censure of such conduct can be disengaged (i.e., "My opponent is acting like an animal, so I will treat him like one"). (8) Attribution of blame: individuals consider that they are forced to take aggressive conducts by provocation thus such actions are justified as defensive reactions and to blame the victims for bringing misery on themselves. Viewing one's harmful conduct as driven by compelling situations rather than personal decision can also avoid self-condemnation (i.e., acting violently to "get even" for previous aggressive behavior on the part of the opponent).

Although the eight mechanisms of moral disengagement that were supported in previous studies (e.g., Aquino et al., 2007; McAlister et al., 2006), Bandura et al. (1996) suggested that moral disengagement may be context-specific, and that the impact of moral disengagement on moral behaviors in different contexts should be examined discreetly. Boardley and Kavussanu (2007) also suggested that behaviors displayed in sports must be included in the items so the levels of moral disengagement in a sports context can be examined; therefore, they developed a six-dimensional model of moral disengagement for use in sports settings based on Bandura's eight mechanisms of moral disengagement. The six dimensions are conduct reconstrual (a combination of moral justification and euphemistic labeling), advantageous comparison, non-responsibility (a combination of displacement of responsibility and diffusion of responsibility), distorting consequences (another name for disregard or distortion of consequences), dehumanization, and attribution of blame. The six mechanisms dimensions developed in accordance with sport behaviors are most closely related to the context of physical education. However, the nature of both sports and physical education contexts may remain distinct, since the former is competitive oriented, while the latter occurs in an educational environment. Based on the outcomes of...

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