Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 125, Issue 2, pp 267–285 | Cite as

Situational Moral Disengagement: Can the Effects of Self-Interest be Mitigated?

  • Jennifer Kish-Gephart
  • James Detert
  • Linda Klebe Treviño
  • Vicki Baker
  • Sean Martin


Self-interest has long been recognized as a powerful human motive. Yet, much remains to be understood about the thinking behind self-interested pursuits. Drawing from multiple literatures, we propose that situations high in opportunity for self-interested gain trigger a type of moral cognition called moral disengagement that allows the individual to more easily disengage internalized moral standards. We also theorize two countervailing forces—situational harm to others and dispositional conscientiousness—that may weaken the effects of personal gain on morally disengaged reasoning. We test our hypotheses in two studies using qualitative and quantitative data and complementary research methods and design. We demonstrate that when personal gain incentives are relatively moderate, reminders of harm to others can reduce the likelihood that employees will morally disengage. Furthermore, when strong personal gain incentives are present in a situation, highly conscientious individuals are less apt than their counterparts to engage in morally disengaged reasoning.


Moral disengagement Motivated cognition Self-interest Unethical decision making 



We extend our thanks to Vikas Anand, Mike Brown, Dan Chiaburu, David Harrison, Nate Petitt, and the members of the ORG seminar at Penn State for their feedback on earlier drafts.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jennifer Kish-Gephart
    • 1
  • James Detert
    • 2
  • Linda Klebe Treviño
    • 3
  • Vicki Baker
    • 4
  • Sean Martin
    • 5
  1. 1.University of Arkansas – FayettevilleFayettevilleUSA
  2. 2.Cornell UniversityIthacaUSA
  3. 3.The Pennsylvania State UniversityUniversity ParkUSA
  4. 4.Albion CollegeAlbionUSA
  5. 5.Cornell UniversityIthacaUSA

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