An action-theoretical approach to the Happy Victimizer Pattern Exploring the role of moral disengagement strategies on the way to action

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Karin Heinrichs
Tobias Kärner
Hannes Reinke


Research in moral education demonstrates the pattern referred to as the happy victimizer (HV) does not only emerge among children and adolescents. Adults also transgress moral rules and, to a considerable extent, they might feel good doing so. However, research also reveals the HV pattern emergence is context specific. In contrast to findings among young children in whom the HV pattern was interpreted as a lack of motivation as a stage of development, it is an open question concerning what HV in adulthood means and how these patterns affect acting. This paper first offers an action-theoretical approach allowing reconstruction of the process of acting as well as a systematic discussion of results from two separate lines of research simultaneously: the research on patterns of moral decision-making as the HV and research on moral disengagement. Second, a survey study provides insights into what kinds of intentions, emotion attributions, and moral disengagement strategies adults display in situations of low moral intensity and whether they indicate consistent or contradictory patterns across situations. Results point to a situational specificity of moral decision-making as well as an application of moral disengagement strategies. Regarding education, it seems necessary to not only focus on struggling to strengthen the moral self or autonomous moral judging but also pay specific attention to acting in morally relevant situations depending on person-situation-interactions. Moral acting may also be fostered by developing supportive environments such as in schools, organisations or society.

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Heinrichs, K., Kärner, T., & Reinke, H. (2020). An action-theoretical approach to the Happy Victimizer Pattern: Exploring the role of moral disengagement strategies on the way to action. Frontline Learning Research, 8(5), 24 - 46.


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