British Journal of Developmental Psychology

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Volume 23 Issue 1 (March 2005), Pages 1-155

Moral/non‐moral domain shift in young adolescents in relation to delinquent behaviour (pages 65-79)

Because moral transgressions are considered more serious than non‐moral (i.e. conventional or personal) transgressions, it is less threatening to self‐esteem to interpret one's own delinquent act as a non‐moral transgression rather than a moral transgression. This ‘domain shift’ could be a way of reducing cognitive dissonance. It was expected that adolescents who report a certain category of delinquent behaviour would evaluate hypothetical transgressions in the same category as more non‐moral than would adolescents who did not report that category of delinquent behaviour. A group of 278 students from the first (M(age)=13.1), second (M(age)=14.3) and third (M(age)=15.2) grade of intermediate secondary schools in the Netherlands participated in the research. The results showed a domain shift from the moral towards non‐moral domains in the evaluation of hypothetical situations about delinquent behaviour reported by the adolescent. At the same time, this domain shift did not occur in situations concerning delinquent behaviour not reported by the adolescent, even when delinquent behaviour occurred in the adolescent's peer group. This finding is consistent with the hypothesis that the domain shift takes place as a consequence of cognitive dissonance. The results also showed that the attitude towards delinquent behaviour and the prevalence of delinquent behaviour in the peer group both predicted a unique part of the variance in reported delinquent behaviour (RDB; 28% and 10%, respectively). The level of moral reasoning (measured by the Sociomoral Reflection Measure–Short Form [SRM‐SF]) did not appear to be a significant predictor of RDB.

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