Abundant evidence has demonstrated that self-compassion robustly contributes to individuals’ psychological well-being. Yet, less is known about the social benefits of self-compassion. The present research sought to test whether self-compassion is related to less unethical behavior, as well as the mediating role of moral disengagement in this relation.
Across two studies in China, a college student sample (study 1, N = 222; 24% men, Mage = 19.44 years) and a large adolescent sample (study 2, N = 3236; 46% boys, Mage = 15.66 years) were recruited to complete measures of self-compassion, moral disengagement, and unethical behavior.
Structural equation models revealed that self-compassion was negatively associated with unethical behavior (study 1, β = − 0.23, p = 0.006; study 2, β = − 0.19, p < 0.001) and that a lower level of moral disengagement explained the negative association between self-compassion and unethical behavior (study 1, indirect effect = − 0.14, p = 0.012, 95% CI [− 0.24, − 0.03]; study 2, indirect effect = − 0.08, p < 0.001, 95% CI [− 0.11, − 0.06]).
The findings support the notion that self-compassion decreases unethical behavior tendency through a lower level of moral disengagement, which expands our understanding of the adaptive functions of self-compassion in the social context.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Adler, N. E., Epel, E. S., Castellazzo, G., & Ickovics, J. R. (2000). Relationship of subjective and objective social status with psychological and physiological functioning: preliminary data in healthy, white women. Health Psychology, 19(6), 586–592. https://doi.org/10.1037/0278-6188.8.131.526.
Akın, U., & Akın, A. (2015). Examining the predictive role of self-compassion on sense of community in Turkish adolescents. Social Indicators Research, 123(1), 29–38. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-014-0724-5.
Allen, A. B., Goldwasser, E. R., & Leary, M. R. (2012). Self-compassion and well-being among older adults. Self and Identity, 11(4), 428–453. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298868.2011.595082.
Bandura, A. (1999). Moral disengagement in the perpetration of inhumanities. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 3(3), 193–209. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327957pspr0303_3.
Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: an agentic perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 52(1), 1–26. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.1.
Bandura, A., Barbaranelli, C., Caprara, G. V., & Pastorelli, C. (1996). Mechanisms of moral disengagement in the exercise of moral agency. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(2), 364–374. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2064.
Barnard, L. K., & Curry, J. F. (2011). Self-compassion: conceptualizations, correlates, & interventions. Review of General Psychology, 15(4), 289–303. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0025754.
Barnett, M. D., & Sharp, K. J. (2016). Maladaptive perfectionism, body image satisfaction, and disordered eating behaviors among US college women: the mediating role of self-compassion. Personality and Individual Differences, 99, 225–234. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2016.05.004.
Brach, T. (2003). Radical acceptance: embracing your life with the heart of a Buddha. Bantam.
Breines, J. G., & Chen, S. (2012). Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(9), 1133–1143. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167212445599.
Detert, J. R., Treviño, L. K., & Sweitzer, V. L. (2008). Moral disengagement in ethical decision making: a study of antecedents and outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(2), 374–391. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.93.2.374.
Egan, V., Hughes, N., & Palmer, E. J. (2015). Moral disengagement, the dark triad, and unethical consumer attitudes. Personality and Individual Differences, 76, 123–128. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2014.11.054.
Han, X. (2016). 初中生自我同情问卷编制及其与道德推脱的关系研究 [the construction of self-compassion questionnaire and the relationship between self-compassion and moral disengagement] [Master’s thesis, Hebei Normal University]. China National Knowledge Infrastructure.
Hu, L. T., & Bentler, P. M. (1999). Cutoff criteria for fit indexes in covariance structure analysis: conventional criteria versus new alternatives. Structural Equation Modeling: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 6(1), 1–55. https://doi.org/10.1080/10705519909540118.
Joeng, J. R., & Turner, S. L. (2015). Mediators between self-criticism and depression: fear of compassion, self-compassion, and importance to others. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 62(3), 453–463. https://doi.org/10.1037/cou0000071.
Kish-Gephart, J. J., Harrison, D. A., & Treviño, L. K. (2010). Bad apples, bad cases, and bad barrels: meta-analytic evidence about sources of unethical decisions at work. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(1), 1–31. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017103.
Leary, M. R., Tate, E. B., Adams, C. E., Allen, A. B., & Hancock, J. (2007). Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: the implications of treating oneself kindly. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(5), 887–904. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.117.
Lindsay, E. K., & Creswell, J. D. (2014). Helping the self help others: self-affirmation increases self-compassion and pro-social behaviors. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 421–421. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00421.
Little, T. D., Cunningham, W. A., Shahar, G., & Widaman, K. F. (2002). To parcel or not to parcel: exploring the question, weighing the merits. Structural Equation Modeling, 9(2), 151–173. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15328007SEM0902_1.
Little, T. D., Rhemtulla, M., Gibson, K., & Schoemann, A. M. (2013). Why the items versus parcels controversy needn’t be one. Psychological Methods, 18(3), 285–300. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0033266.
MacBeth, A., & Gumley, A. (2012). Exploring compassion: a meta-analysis of the association between self-compassion and psychopathology. Clinical Psychology Review, 32(6), 545–552. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2012.06.003.
MacKinnon, D. P., Lockwood, C. M., & Williams, J. (2004). Confidence limits for the indirect effect: distribution of the product and resampling methods. Multivariate Behavioral Research, 39(1), 99–128. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327906mbr3901_4.
Maxwell, S. E., Cole, D. A., & Mitchell, M. A. (2011). Bias in cross-sectional analyses of longitudinal mediation: partial and complete mediation under an autoregressive model. Multivariate Behavioral Research, 46(5), 816–841. https://doi.org/10.1080/00273171.2011.606716.
Moore, C., Detert, J. R., Klebe Treviño, L., Baker, V. L., & Mayer, D. M. (2012). Why employees do bad things: moral disengagement and unethical organizational behavior. Personnel Psychology, 65(1), 1–48. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-6570.2011.01237.x.
Morley, R. H. (2018). The impact of mindfulness meditation and self-compassion on criminal impulsivity in a prisoner sample. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 33(2), 118–122. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11896-017-9239-8.
Morley, R. M., Terranova, V. A., Cunningham, S. N., & Kraft, G. (2016). Self-compassion and predictors of criminality. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 25(5), 503–517. https://doi.org/10.1080/10926771.2015.1107170.
Neff, K. D. (2003a). Self-compassion: an alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85–102. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298860309032.
Neff, K. D. (2003b). The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity, 2(2), 223–250. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298860309027.
Neff, K. D. (2009). Self-compassion. In Leary, M. R., & Hoyle, R. H. (Eds.), Handbook of individual differences in social behavior (pp. 561–573). Guilford Press.
Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-compassion, self-esteem, and well-being. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00330.x.
Neff, K. D., Hsieh, Y. P., & Dejitterat, K. (2005). Self-compassion, achievement goals, and coping with academic failure. Self and Identity, 4(3), 263–287. https://doi.org/10.1080/13576500444000317.
Neff, K. D., Long, P., Knox, M. C., Davidson, O., Kuchar, A., Costigan, A., Williamson, Z., Rohleder, N., Tóth-Király, I., & Breines, J. G. (2018). The forest and the trees: examining the association of self-compassion and its positive and negative components with psychological functioning. Self and Identity, 17(6), 627–645. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298868.2018.1436587.
Neff, K. D., Pisitsungkagarn, K., & Hsieh, Y. P. (2008). Self-compassion and self-construal in the United States, Thailand, and Taiwan. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 39(3), 267–285. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022022108314544.
Neff, K. D., & Pommier, E. (2013). The relationship between self-compassion and other-focused concern among college undergraduates, community adults, and practicing meditators. Self and Identity, 12(2), 160–176. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298868.2011.649546.
Neff, K., & Seppälä, E. (2016). Compassion, well-being, and the hypo-egoic self. In The Oxford Handbook of Hypo-egoic Phenomena (pp. 189–202). Oxford University Press.
Piff, P. K., Stancato, D. M., Côté, S., Mendoza-Denton, R., & Keltner, D. (2012). Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(11), 4086–4091. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1118373109.
Raes, F., Pommier, E., Neff, K. D., & Van Gucht, D. (2011). Construction and factorial validation of a short form of the self-compassion scale. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 18(3), 250–255. https://doi.org/10.1002/cpp.702.
Reynolds, W. M. (1982). Development of reliable and valid short forms of the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 38(1), 119–125. https://doi.org/10.1002/1097-4679(198201)38:1<119::AID-JCLP2270380118>3.0.CO;2-I.
Ribeaud, D., & Eisner, M. (2010). Are moral disengagement, neutralization techniques, and self-serving cognitive distortions the same? Developing a unified scale of moral neutralization of aggression. International Journal of Conflict and Violence, 4(2), 298–315. https://doi.org/10.4119/ijcv-2833.
Ruedy, N. E., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2010). In the moment: the effect of mindfulness on ethical decision making. Journal of Business Ethics, 95(1), 73–87. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-011-0796-y.
Shalvi, S., Gino, F., Barkan, R., & Ayal, S. (2015). Self-serving justifications doing wrong and feeling moral. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(2), 125–130. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721414553264.
Shu, L. L., Gino, F., & Bazerman, M. H. (2011). Dishonest deed, clear conscience: when cheating leads to moral disengagement and motivated forgetting. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(3), 330–349. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167211398138.
Sun, X., Chan, D. W., & Chan, L. K. (2016). Self-compassion and psychological well-being among adolescents in Hong Kong: exploring gender differences. Personality and Individual Differences, 101, 288–292. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2016.06.011.
Sutton, E., Schonert-Reichl, K. A., Wu, A. D., & Lawlor, M. S. (2018). Evaluating the reliability and validity of the self-compassion scale short form adapted for children ages 8–12. Child Indicators Research, 11(4), 1217–1236. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12187-017-9470-y.
Teng, Z., Nie, Q., Guo, C., Zhang, Q., Liu, Y., & Bushman, B. J. (2019). A longitudinal study of link between exposure to violent video games and aggression in Chinese adolescents: the mediating role of moral disengagement. Developmental Psychology, 55(1), 184–195. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000624.
Thoemmes, F. (2015). Reversing arrows in mediation models does not distinguish plausible models. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 37(4), 226–234. https://doi.org/10.1080/01973533.2015.1049351.
Wang, X., Chen, Z., Poon, K. T., Teng, F., & Jin, S. (2017a). Self-compassion decreases acceptance of own immoral behaviors. Personality and Individual Differences, 106, 329–333. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2016.10.030.
Wang, C., Ryoo, J. H., Swearer, S. M., Turner, R., & Goldberg, T. S. (2017b). Longitudinal relationships between bullying and moral disengagement among adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 46(6), 1304–1317. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-016-0577-0.
Yang, Y., Guo, Z., Kou, Y., & Liu, B. (2019). Linking self-compassion and prosocial behavior in adolescents: the mediating roles of relatedness and trust. Child Indicators Research, 12(6), 2035–2049. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12187-019-9623-2.
Zheng, X., Qin, X., Liu, X., & Liao, H. (2019). Will creative employees always make trouble? Investigating the roles of moral identity and moral disengagement. Journal of Business Ethics, 157(3), 653–672. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-017-3683-3.
This research was sponsored by the MOE Project of Key Research Institutes of Humanities and Social Science at Universities (16JJD880007), Research Institute of Wang Yangming’s Philosophy of Mind & Current Social Mentality of Confucius Academy (KXTXT201704), Shanghai Sailing Program (19YF1413400), China Postdoctoral Science Foundation (2019M651440), and the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities (2019ECNU-HWFW019).
Conflict of Interest
The authors declared no conflicts of interest.
All the research procedures were approved by the Institutional Review Board at Beijing Normal University.
Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants in both studies.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
Yang, Y., Guo, Z., Wu, J. et al. Self-Compassion Relates to Reduced Unethical Behavior Through Lower Moral Disengagement. Mindfulness 11, 1424–1432 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-020-01354-1
- Unethical behavior
- Moral disengagement
- Social behavior