Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUC Berkeley

What Would I Do and Why?: Adolescents’ Moral Reasoning, Social Perspective-Taking Competence, and Intended Action in Response to Witnessed Bullying


Why do people’s moral judgments—what they decide is right or wrong—often fail to predict their actions? One prevalent example is the phenomenon of bullying: though the vast majority of young people judge bullying as wrong, a significant percentage of adolescents report having perpetrated bullying behavior, and even more have acted as bystanders, i.e., have witnessed bullying without intervening to stop it. Social domain theory (SDT) provides a framework for analyzing the reasoning behind such judgments, based on evidence that people distinguish between different domains of social knowledge—moral, conventional, personal, and prudential—when reasoning about social situations. More research is needed to investigate the relationships between domain-based socio-moral reasoning, social-emotional competencies such as perspective-taking, and intended action choices, especially among youth.

In this dissertation study, a secondary analysis using data from the larger National Professional Development and Evaluation Project, 1402 adolescent students (grades 9 and 10) drawn from 61 different high schools in 8 regions across the United States were asked to respond to a hypothetical bullying situation. In written survey-based responses, participating students rated potential reasons for a bystander to intervene in the situation and choices for how they could respond if they were to witness the situation themselves. Next, students were asked to select the single choice of action that they would be most likely to take, and then to explain in their own words why they would make that choice. The students also completed a measure of social perspective-taking competence. Using an SDT framework to examine the data, this study focused on three major research questions.

For the first research question, multilevel regression modeling, with students nested in schools, was used to relate students’ reasoning and personal/contextual factors (gender, age, and perceived bullying prevalence) to their action choice ratings, and logistic regression was used to predict their selection of a “best” action choice. Results indicated that endorsement of moral reasoning was consistently positively related to the choice to directly intervene to stop the bullying and negatively related to the choice to bystand, while endorsement of conventional reasoning was positively related to the choice to intervene indirectly (i.e., tell a teacher). Both males and students who perceived a greater prevalence of bullying at their school were significantly less likely to endorse/select either kind of intervention and significantly more likely to endorse/select bystanding and perpetration. The second research question involved coding students’ free-response explanations for SDT domains cited and relating these to their action choices. Associations between moral/conventional reasoning and action choices mirrored those found in the first research question; additionally, students who chose bystanding often cited personal and prudential considerations, and some students mentioned relational and emotional concerns as well. Finally, the third research question used mediation analyses to test for indirect effects of moral reasoning on action choices through social perspective-taking competence, which was positively associated with moral reasoning and with the positive action choices, while negatively associated with the negative action choices. Significant indirect effects were found for three of the four action choices, supporting the idea that socio-moral reasoning and social-emotional competence work together to produce moral functioning.

Findings are discussed in terms of theoretical and methodological implications for research as well as potential implications for practice, such as for anti-bullying efforts in educational settings.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View