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Research Note

Moral Disengagement and Ethical

The Moderating Role of Trait Guilt and Shame
James F. Johnson1 and Shane Connelly2
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Air Force Personnel Center, Strategic Research & Assessment Branch, JBSA Randolph Air Force Base, TX, USA
Department of Psychology, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK, USA

Abstract: Process-focused models of ethical decision-making (EDM) have focused on individual and situational constraints influencing EDM
processes and outcomes. Trait affect and propensity to morally disengage are two individual factors that influence EDM. The current study
examines the moderating role of dispositional guilt and shame on the relationship between moral disengagement and EDM. Results indicate
that moderate and high levels of dispositional guilt attenuate the negative relationship between moral disengagement and EDM, while low guilt
does not. Dispositional shame does not moderate the relationship between moral disengagement and EDM. Implications for personnel
selection are discussed.

Keywords: moral disengagement, ethical decision-making, moral emotions, guilt, shame

Ethical decision-making (EDM) in an organizational con- information to form actionable mental models (Thomas,
text is a difficult process. Ethical issues often involve uncer- Clark, & Gioia, 1993). Sonenshein (2007) proposes moral
tain information and unclear guidelines, limiting utility of sensemaking involves post-hoc interpretations of non-
purely rational approaches to EDM (Sonenshein, 2007). rational, visceral biases and emotions. In contrast, Mumford
The availability of multiple action pathways with different and colleagues (2008; 2006) emphasize ethical sensemaking
advantages/drawbacks across stakeholders further compli- requires active identification, interpretation, and regulation of
cates EDM. Given ethical sensemaking involves intuitive- personal and situational constraints. Critically, both authors
emotional processes and cognitive interpretations to acknowledge the deleterious effects of derailing cognitions
preserve favorable identities (Detert, Trevio, & Sweitzer, and unregulated affect on ethical sensemaking and EDM.
2008; Gaudine & Thorne, 2001), it is unsurprising emotion Cognitive mechanisms like moral disengagement nega-
and cognitive justification/rationalization influence EDM tively impact ethical sensemaking and EDM (Detert et al.,
processes. While evidence demonstrates affect and 2008; Thiel, Bagdasarov, Harkrider, Johnson, & Mumford,
moral disengagement independently influence EDM (cf. 2012) by reducing critical analysis and inhibiting self-
MacDougall, Bagdasarov, Johnson, & Mumford, 2015), regulation (Bandura, 1999). Similarly, equivocality of ethi-
few studies have examined the joint effects emotion and cal dilemmas increases likelihood of emotions influencing
cognitive rationalizations have on ethical decisions. There- sensemaking and EDM (Connelly, Helton-Fauth, &
fore, this study examines the moderating effects trait moral Mumford, 2004; Gaudine & Thorne, 2001). Research
emotions guilt and shame have on the relationship between shows successful regulation of disruptive emotion reduces
moral disengagement and EDM. By investigating the mod- their deleterious effects on ethical sensemaking and EDM
erating effects of nomologically similar emotions like (Bagdasarov, MacDougall, Johnson, & Mumford, 2015;
guilt and shame, we develop a more realistic understanding Kligyte, Connelly, Thiel, & Devenport, 2013).
under which conditions moral disengagement is most likely
to impact ethical sensemaking cognitions and outcomes.
Practically, understanding differences in how trait moral
Moral Disengagement
emotions moderate moral disengagement has significant
implications for personnel selection systems and promoting Social cognitive theory frames moral agency as self-
organizational ethics. regulation via external rules and norms as well as internal
Given their complexity, we make sense of ethical moral reasoning, willpower, and self-sanctioning (Bandura,
situations by attending to and interpreting streams of 1999, 2015). As moral agents, people regulate actions to

Journal of Personnel Psychology (2016), 15(4), 184189 2016 Hogrefe Publishing

DOI: 10.1027/1866-5888/a000166
J. F. Johnson & S. Connelly, Moral Disengagement and Ethical Decision-Making 185

avoid external sanctions and because adherence to self- & McCloskey, 2010). While guilt facilitates prosocial
imposed moral standards is rewarding. However, self- responses, shame promotes maladaptive, self-destructive
regulation is vulnerable to mechanisms like moral responses and isolation (Tangney et al., 2005).
disengagement, the process whereby cognitive links A significant difference between guilt and shame is
between unethical behavior and moral self-sanctions are co-morbidity with empathic consideration, perspective-
selectively activated or severed (Bandura, 1999, 2015). taking, and co-experiencing others affective states (Cohen,
Moral disengagement occurs via cognitive reconstrual of 2010). Tangney (1991) shows empathy correlates positively
reprehensible behavior, obscuring/distorting effects of with guilt but negatively with shame, suggesting empathy
harmful actions, and reducing identification with or blaming and guilt help people distinguish between the self, ones
victims (Bandura, 1999, 2015). Once disengaged, individu- behavior, and effects on others. With shame, that differen-
als increasingly engage in and support atrocities with abated tiation fails to occur, resulting in negative self-evaluations
cognitive distress. Organizationally, moral disengagement is and producing a self-oriented distress response (Tangney
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associated with unethical organizational behavior and cor- & Dearing, 2003).
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ruption via reframing, facilitating, and maintaining an any-

thing goes approach to success (Moore, 2008).
Moral Emotions as Moderators of Moral
Disengagement and EDM
Moral Emotions
Considering the prosocial, ameliorative actions associated
Organizational ethical dilemmas can trigger negative emo- with moral guilt, we propose guilt moderates moral disen-
tions including anger, fear, and guilt. Moral emotions are gagement and EDM. Trait guilt is associated with promo-
linked to the welfare of others, involving prosocial action tion of personal responsibility and reparative behaviors,
tendencies benefitting the greater social order (Haidt, clarifying cognitive links between ones transgressive
2003). Self-conscious moral guilt and shame both involve actions and harmful outcomes (Neumann, 2000). These
negative self-evaluations in response to violations of moral self-identifying cognitions spotlight ones transgressive
and social norms, but differ in display, direction, and inten- actions, making evasion of responsibility via moral disen-
sity (Tangney, Mashek, & Stuewig, 2005; Tangney, gagement difficult. Furthermore, guilt is associated with
Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007). Self-focused moral emotions increased empathetic concern, humanizing other parties
are particularly important to examine in conjunction with and enabling perspective-taking (Cohen, 2010; Tangney
moral disengagement as the latter reduces or eliminates et al., 2005). Therefore, individuals high in guilt will be
self-sanctioning. Unlike other-focused emotions like anger more likely to put themselves in the positions of others
that focus attention on others, self-oriented emotions focus and accept responsibility for transgressions, countering the
attention inward making thoughts, intentions, and behavior negative influence of moral disengagement cognitions on
more salient. Thus, self-focused emotions and moral disen- EDM. In contrast, individuals low in guilt will not experience
gagement are potentially competing forces acting on ethical the positive, attenuating effects of moral guilt, allowing the
behavior. Tangney et al. (2005; 1996; 2007) define guilt negative impact of moral disengagement on EDM to persist.
and shame as distinct emotions given significant differ-
ences in how each promote or inhibit moral cognitions Hypothesis 1: High levels of trait guilt will attenuate
and behaviors (Haidt, 2003). That trait guilt and shame the negative relationship between moral disengage-
exhibit significant differences in action tendencies despite ment and EDM while low levels will not.
nomological similarities make them fitting for this study.
Trait-based guilt increases propensity for negative self- In contrast, we propose shame exacerbates moral disen-
evaluations of norm-violating behavior, focusing cognitions gagement cognitions effect on EDM. Shame involves
on reparative behavior to reestablish social cohesiveness maladaptive coping strategies including ego-centric focus
with those affected (Tangney et al., 2005). Despite initial and zealous self-preservation via attacking others, self-
negative self-evaluations, guilt facilitates ameliorative depreciation, withdrawal, and avoidance (Stuewig et al.,
actions, acceptance of responsibility, and socially reparative 2010). These maladaptive coping strategies may obfus-
behavior (Tangney et al., 2007). In contrast, trait-based cate personal responsibility and reduce moral self-
shame increases propensity for negative self-evaluations sanctioning to avoid further self-scrutiny, allowing
of self- worth, and is associated with negative, critical exam- disengaging cognitions to manifest and persist. The self-
inations of ones self-concept and feeling intimately oriented distress response and lack of empathetic concern
exposed (Tangney et al., 2005). These feelings promote associated with shame (Tangney, 1991) may intensify the
withdrawal, zealous self-preservation, aggression, and negative relationship between moral disengagement and
externalization of blame (Stuewig, Tangney, Heigel, Harty, EDM. Therefore, those high in shame are likely to

2016 Hogrefe Publishing Journal of Personnel Psychology (2016), 15(4), 184189

186 J. F. Johnson & S. Connelly, Moral Disengagement and Ethical Decision-Making

minimize consequences of their harmful actions, blame scored as unethical (1) moderately ethical (2), and
victims, and diffuse/distort responsibility to reduce self- highly ethical (3) choices. An average EDM score was cal-
depreciating cognitions and affect (Cohen, 2010; culated across items.
Tangney & Dearing, 2003).

Hypothesis 2: High levels of trait shame will exacer- Covariates

bate the negative relationship between moral disen-
Verbal reasoning significantly impacts EDM quality in case-
gagement and EDM while low levels will not.
based ethics measures (Mumford et al., 2008; 2006), and
was assessed using the logic-based 30-item Employee Apti-
tude Survey. Participants indicated whether presented fac-
tual statements were true, false, or unsure (Ruch &
Method Ruch, 1980).
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Sample and Procedure

A sample of 229 undergraduates from a Midwest university
completed the study for course credit. After removing 25 Results
participants for incomplete or random responding, the final
sample size was 204. The sample was 32% male and 74% Moderation Effects of Moral Emotions
female (Mage = 19), and 84% of subject pool participants on Moral Disengagement to EDM
indicated being employed at least once with 2.003.11 years
Table 1 presents descriptive statistics and reliabilities for
of work experience (Griffith, Connelly, & Thiel, 2011).
study variables. Two hierarchical regression analyses were
conducted to examine moderating effects of guilt and
shame on the moral disengagement to EDM relationship
(Tables 2 and 3). Covariates and mean-centered main
Trait Guilt and Shame
Trait guilt and shame were measured using the scenario-
Table 1. Correlation matrix for all study variables
based Test of Self-Conscious Affect (TOSCA-3). Questions
included a stem and set of sample responses set on a Variables Mean SD 1 2 3 4 5

5-point Likert scale (Not Likely to Very Likely) (Tangney, 1 Verbal reasoning 22.14 6.77 .89
Dearing, Wagner, & Gramzow, 2000). 2 Trait guilt 4.13 0.44 .07 .77
3 Trait shame 3.06 0.56 .03 .44** .74
Moral Disengagement 4 Moral dis. 1.92 0.44 .08 .46** .14* .87
Trait moral disengagement was assessed using Detert and 5 EDM 2.13 0.18 .23** .19** .04 .18** .78
colleagues (2008) 32-item moral disengagement scale. Notes. N = 204; *p < .05; **p < .01; Cronbachs alpha reliabilities are
Questions assessed eight disengagement mechanisms, reported in bold on the diagonal; EDM reliability was assessed using a
split-half method with a Spearman-Brown correction.
including items like If someone leaves something lying
around, its their fault if it gets stolen, rated on a 5-point
Likert scale (Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree). An aver-
age disengagement score was calculated across items. Table 2. Moderating effects of guilt on the moral disengagement-EDM
Ethical Decision-Making Guilt as moderator
Ethical decision-making was assessed via a 12-item case- SE t R2 R2
based measure for undergraduates adapted by Kligyte
Step one: covariates and main effects
et al. (2013) from Mumford and colleagues (2008; 2006).
Verbal reasoning1 .21** .07 3.00
The measure featured reduced technical language and
Trait shame1 .15** .08 1.99
complexity, presenting ethical dilemmas in a quasi-
Trait guilt2 .22* .09 2.49
academic organization. The measure included 12 scenarios
Moral disengagement2 .08 .08 0.98 .13**
presenting gray ethical dilemmas like data management,
Step two: interaction effect
professional conduct, and conflicts-of-interest. Scenario
Guilt  Moral disengagement .14* .07 1.98 .15* .02*
content was based on a taxonomy of ethicality derived from
Notes. n = 197; *p < .05; **p < .01; Main effect and interaction variables are
subject matter experts (SMEs) (Helton-Fauth et al., 2003). mean-centered; 1denotes variable is a covariate and 2denotes variable is a
Participants selected the best two of eight response options main effect.

Journal of Personnel Psychology (2016), 15(4), 184189 2016 Hogrefe Publishing

J. F. Johnson & S. Connelly, Moral Disengagement and Ethical Decision-Making 187

Table 3. Moderating effects of shame on the moral disengagement- Influence of Moral Disengagement on EDM at
EDM relationship Levels of Trait Guilt
Shame as moderator 0.4

SE t R 2
R 2

Ethical Decision Making

Step one: covariates and main effects
Verbal reasoning1 .22** .07 3.12
Trait guilt1 .20* .09 2.31 +1 SD
2 -0.1
Trait shame .17* .08 2.15 Mean
Moral disengagement2 .10 .08 1.32 .12** -1 SD
Step two: interaction effect
Shame  Moral disengagement .06 .07 0.87 .124 .004
Notes. n = 197; *p < .05; **p < .01; Main effect and interaction variables are -1 -0.5 0 0.5 1
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mean-centered; 1denotes variable is a covariate and 2denotes variable is a

Moral Disengagement
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main effect.

Figure 1. Simple slopes visualization comparing moral disengagement

effects were entered in step one, and interaction terms were and EDM at different levels of trait guilt.
entered in step two. The guilt by moral disengagement
interaction significantly predicted EDM, while the shame
by moral disengagement interaction did not. suggests other factors like depression and narcissism influ-
Simple slopes analysis further examined the significant ence expressions of aggression (Stuewig et al., 2010;
guilt by moral disengagement interaction. Slopes for moral Tangney et al., 2007) and potentially moral disengagement.
disengagement were examined at high (+1 SD), moderate When self-focus is pervasive and awareness of others lim-
(mean), and low ( 1 SD) levels of trait guilt (Figure 1), ited, cognitive distortion may be exacerbated.
showing a significant, negative relationship between moral
disengagement and EDM at low levels of trait guilt,
= .22, t(196) = 2.20, p = .029, but not at moderate Implications
( = .08, t(196) = .98, p = .33) or high ( = .06,
t(196) = .54, p = .59) levels. Results support hypothesis Our findings provide a starting point toward delineating
one but not hypothesis two. complexities between moral emotions, moral disengage-
ment, and EDM. Sensemaking models of EDM suggest
utility in examining joint influences of affective and cogni-
tive traits on ethical sensemaking (MacDougall et al., 2015).
Results contribute to the ethical sensemaking literature by
Discussion demonstrating, beyond direct influences on EDM (Kligyte
et al., 2013), self-focused emotions shame and guilt differ-
entially moderate the effects of other cognitive processes
This studys purpose was to better understand the moderat- on EDM. Future research could examine how other moral
ing effects trait guilt and shame have on the relationship emotions like anger, disgust, or compassion differentially
between moral disengagement and EDM. High and moder- moderate the moral disengagement to EDM relationship.
ate levels of trait guilt attenuate the negative relationship Findings also have practical implications for personnel
between trait moral disengagement and EDM while low selection and identification of risky traits. In light of per-
levels do not. As trait guilt is associated with increased sistent organizational failures (Trevio, den Nieuwenboer,
empathetic concern and personal responsibility, individuals & Kish-Gephart, 2014), organizations have a vested interest
with moderate to high trait guilt are more likely to identify in promoting ethical behavior. Selection systems increas-
cause-and-effect links between unethical behavior and out- ingly incorporate non-cognitive measures of personality,
comes, allowing reengagement in self-regulation and self- biodata, and integrity. Findings suggest trait moral disen-
sanctioning inhibited by disengagement cognitions (Moore, gagement reduces EDM in those with low levels of trait
Detert, Trevio, Baker, & Mayer, 2012; Neumann, 2000). guilt; therefore, assessing trait moral emotions like guilt
In contrast, shame did not moderate moral disengagement may compliment traditional integrity measures as viable
and EDM. This may be partially due to participants exhibit- selection criteria. While additional research should like-
ing only modest levels of shame (M = 3.06). Moderating wise determine negative organizational repercussions of
effects may only be observable at higher levels of trait high levels of trait guilt, eliminating applicants with below
shame. Second, the self-focused, complex nature of shame average trait guilt may reduce the impact of destructive

2016 Hogrefe Publishing Journal of Personnel Psychology (2016), 15(4), 184189

188 J. F. Johnson & S. Connelly, Moral Disengagement and Ethical Decision-Making

moral disengagement cognitions on organizational EDM. organizational commitment. Journal of Leadership & Organiza-
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MacDougall, A. E., Bagdasarov, Z., Johnson, J. F., & Mumford,
mas set in a quasi-academic organizational context, so find- M. D. (2015). Managing workplace ethics: An extended con-
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ings should be replicated using non-academic cases. ceptualization of ethical sensemaking and the facilitative role
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Additionally, while ethical scenarios presented realistic of human resources. In R. M. Buckley (Ed.), Research in
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2016 Hogrefe Publishing Journal of Personnel Psychology (2016), 15(4), 184189