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  • Writer's pictureMiriam Verbeek

Using disengagement tactics: Blog 3 of 4

second blog of the series, I explained that there are additional things that determine our behaviour: our capabilities for ‘symbolism’, ‘vicarious learning’, ‘forethought’ and ‘self-reflection’, and also ‘self-efficacy’ and ‘agency’. In this blog I write about a fifth capability, which is to regulate our own behaviour. When we use our self-regulatory capability, we examine the consequences of our actions against our self standards and by taking notice of how others react to our behaviour (called feedback). Notice that This is what is described in the behavioural loop diagram.

Developing self-standards We develop our self-standards throughout our lives, absorbing them from significant others in our lives, our culture, our religion and our own goals. Standards are, in effect, INTERNAL CONTROLS. They are the ‘markers’ that help us to judge whether we are reaching our life goals; examples of such goals might be: "I want to be a good person", or "I want to be a great football player", or "I want to be an effective doctor (or policeman or lawyer or mother – insert whatever profession you want)". Of course, we all have several goals at once. Some of our goals may be quite well thought out; for example, a goal like: "I want to be a great football player" is likely to be better thought out than a goal imposed upon us by our cultural tradition, such as what it means to be a 'good person'. Sometimes, the standards underpinning the goals clash, forcing us to juggle the standards and decide which one(s) is(are) the most important in the circumstances. An example of this is when we face the question: “Should I lie about this situation so that I don't hurt the person’s feelings?” Generally, we have some sort of priority ordering of our goals, though most often we don't do such priority ordering consciously. It is the ‘juggling’ of self-standards and ordering of life goals that I want to talk about most in this third blog of the series.

The use of disengagement tacticsWhen we use our capability for self-regulation; that is, our capability to monitor and adjust our own behaviour, we engage our emotions. When we feel good about the consequences of a behaviour - that is we are satisfied that we are behaving according to our self-standards and the feedback is good - we tend to repeat it. When we feel bad about a behaviour, we have the option to either say to ourselves: “I’m not going to do that again!” or “Maybe I need to change the way I think about this situation”. If we choose the first option, we are likely not changing the priority ordering of our goals, but if we choose the second option, we are considering re-ordering the priority. Throughout our lives, we learn some pretty powerful ways of engaging and disengaging from standards. Of course, it is necessary for us to consider which standards should be engaged in which circumstances, but when we do this without thinking about why we are doing it and what the consequences are to our goals, we are leaving ourselves wide open to corruption. I’ve summarised the ways through which we disengage from internal controls (self-standards) in the diagram (adapted from Bandura’s illustration in his book) in the following diagram - I explain what I mean by the diagram in the rest of this blog.

  1. We can say that we acted in a certain way to achieve moral ends. Such moral principles come from a variety of sources, our culture, our religion, our political ideologies etc. We can call on moral principles, such as ‘justice’, ‘equity’, ‘fair play’, ‘independence’ and so on, to justify unspeakable brutalities, including genocide and torture, but also less weighty actions; for example, a school principal chastising a child for misbehaviour caused by the incompetence of a teacher may justify his action on the basis that the overriding principle (standard) to be upheld is ‘good behaviour’ by children regardless of cause for apparent bad behaviour.

  2. We might also reconstruct the action by comparing it to a worse outcome (palliative comparison). For example, a thief who stole twenty dollars may compare his actions against those of a lawyer who pocketed the proceeds of Trust Funds worth many thousands of dollars; and a person throwing rubbish onto the ground may dismiss the action by pointing out that a coal mine nearby produces a much greater impact of pollution.

  3. We could also change the language we describe the action by (euphemistic language); we could say “strategic misrepresentation” rather than “lying”, or “collateral damage” rather than “killing innocent people”. Moral justifications, euphemistic labelling and advantageous comparisons are the most powerful ways of disengagement tactics a person can use. They allow us to turn what is otherwise morally unacceptable behaviour into something that we can be proud about and, therefore, in the self-regulatory process, we can evaluate the action as satisfactory, worthy of self-reward and to be replicated in future. A second type of disengagement tactic we can use is to fudge who is actually responsible for the outcomes of an action. We can do this by either displacing the responsibility (e.g., “I was forced to do it” or “there is no way I could have foreseen the consequences”) or diffusing responsibility (e.g., “It was the committee’s decision"). A third type of disengagement tactic is when we disregard or misrepresent the injurious consequences of our actions. That is, we can easily remember information about the benefits of the action but not the disbenefits, or we minimise, ignore or disbelieve the disbenefits. For example, a cigarette smoker might deny that she can cause harm to others as a result of the smoke she exhales by pointing out that passive smokers she has known have not become afflicted by predicted illnesses. She may be less able to recall those passive smokers who have become ill, or she may claim that an illness was caused by something else rather than cigarette smoke. By using such disengagement tactics, the cigarette smoker can believe that she is not causing harm and, therefore, there is no need to change her behaviour. When we use this type of disengagement tactic, we effectively disregard or discredit feedback we receive about our actions In the fourth type of disengagement tactic, we focus on the victim of our action: we can either blame them for hurts they suffered as a result of our actions and/or we can dehumanise them.

  4. By dehumanising victims, we can override the difficulty we might otherwise have when we mistreat others. Social organisations, such as bureaucratisation, automation, urbanisation and high geographical mobility are conditions under which many people remain strangers. We can easily use this form of disengagement mechanism in these situations. For example, in a multinational organisation which employs large numbers of people, each person may be represented by a box on an organisation chart. A manager making organisational decisions about how people should be deployed may do so by thinking of how the boxes should be arranged according to, say, economic principles rather than thinking of the psychological and physical needs of the people represented by the boxes. The manager, therefore, may not think that his actions are contrary to standards of empathy for others that he may have.

  5. Another way of dehumanising victims of actions is to claim that they lack human qualities. There are examples throughout history (e.g., treatment of slaves, refugees, Jews and Gypsies in Nazi Germany) and, indeed, today, that glaringly highlight we are capable of believing that those we consider ‘subhuman’ are lacking sensitivities and can only be influenced by severe methods.

  6. On the converse, humanising a victim is a powerful way of counteracting injurious conduct. For example, it’s well known that most abductors find it difficult to harm their hostages after they have gotten to know them personally.

  7. As well as various dehumanising tactics, we can also just plain blame the victim for causing the hurt they suffered. We can do this by picking a point in a disagreement where the other person did something hurtful to us. For example, a policeman who bashed a teenager may say that the verbal and physical assault he received from the teenager provoked the bashing. In doing so, the policeman, in this example, ignores that he called the teenager an insulting name in the first place. By judiciously picking the point to explain his rough behaviour, the policeman is able to justify his behaviour in terms of compelling circumstances. By fixing blame on others or on circumstances, not only do people excuse their own injurious actions, they can also feel self-righteous in the process. So there you have it. We have lots of ways to justify how to juggle our standards – and feel good about our decisions to prioritise some over others. We can use these disengagement mechanisms singly or in combination. As an aside: I ran an experiment in which I asked a group of managers to role play that they were on the board of a pharmaceutical company that had to decide whether or not to take a drug the company produced off the market. Experts had told the company that the drug was potentially lethal, causing unnecessary deaths each year. The drug earnt the company a lot of money. Here is a quote from one of the ‘managers’ when justifying her decision to continue selling the drug (the disengagement tactic used are in (normal text)): "There is no solid evidence proving the drug has detrimental side effects. The adverse effects are just a rough estimate by experts (misrepresenting consequences). There is no social pressure to stop selling the drug (displacing responsibility). Furthermore, usage of this drug is under the prescription of an independent doctor (displacing responsibility). The Board’s primary responsibility is to stockholders and we have no right to withdraw a drug from the market which is obviously in demand (redefine conduct). Since customers have free choice and advice from professional doctors, the company has already fulfilled its social responsibility (blaming the victim). The AMA’s statistical estimate of 14-22 excess deaths per year is minuscule in relation to the number of prescriptions written (misrepresenting consequences)." There have been quite a number of studies on the use of disengagement tactics. Unsurprisingly, the findings from these studies are that when people have weak pro-social standards and disengage from them, they are more prone to engage in punitive behaviour: they are more likely to be quick to anger and have little self-restraint. In 1993, Karoly, a behavioural science researcher, claimed that use of disengagement mechanisms are a "self-imposed moratorium on self-knowledge expansion, skills-building and, ultimately, goal attainment". As I already stated above, the use of disengagement tactics could pave a path towards corruption. In the next blog (the fourth in this blog series), I’ll pick out the lessons from parts 1, 2, and 3 of this blog series that explains how people become corrupted and, more importantly, I’ll suggest ways of how we might direct our own behaviour as well as influence the behaviour of others to avoid corruption.

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