As I continue to learn about human trafficking, how often it occurs in our societies, and how horrific a crime it can be, I ask myself, ‘why does human trafficking happen?’. How can our supposedly “evolved” societies still support a crime that seems so animalistic?
There are many, many reasons why human trafficking still occurs, and I will discuss several of them in this blog. While some obvious reasons for trafficking are a demand for sex, labor, and organs, as well as the monetary benefits gained through these demands, today I want to touch on a reason that helps us to understand the psychology of traffickers.
Why try to understand the psychology of “bad” people?
While there are countless theories about why people do the things they do, I find Social Cognitive Theory’s idea of moral disengagement to be particularly interesting.
Often, when we hear the word ‘theory’ we might be prone to a mental shutdown. Why try to understand the psychology of criminals? Without understanding why people may choose to commit a crime, it is difficult, impossible I should say, to create strategies to prevent a crime from taking place. Simply understanding traffickers as “bad” people, doesn’t allow us to understand why trafficking, or any behavior that harms another individual, occurs.
According to Social Cognitive theory, people are generally nice to others because they learn ‘self-regulation’ through gaining a set of morals (McAlister, Perry, & Parcel, 2008, p. 175). According to the idea of moral disengagement, people can “disengage” from their morals because they change how they think about particular actions (McAlister, Perry, & Parcel, 2008, p. 175). The four ways people can ‘achieve’ this change in thinking are gathered from McAlister, Perry, and Parcel’s (2008) paper on Social Cognitive Theory and are outlined below. Additionally, there are some examples I came up with for how these ideas can be applied to a human trafficking situation:
- “euphemistic labeling” – a trafficker may label human trafficking, as a “business”, a “living”, or anything else that makes their actions seem less immoral. Similarly, they can say they are “punishing” a victim, instead of abusing them. Therefore, they do not have to confront their actions as an opposition to their morals.
- “dehumanization and attribution of blame” – a trafficker may choose to believe a victim deserves to be treated in an exploited way due to differences between the trafficker and a victim such as ethnicity, origin, race, religion, culture, beliefs, or any other possible difference between two people.
- “diffusion and displacement of responsibility” – a trafficker may consider their boss as responsible for how they are treating a victim. Similarly, they may blame the group they are involved in, such as a gang, for the action, even though they are choosing to take part in trafficking.
- “perceived moral justification” – a trafficker may choose to see the exploitation of a victim as being a good thing because of the effects it creates. This effect could be supporting themselves or their family, giving people a way to support themselves (for example a pimp), or any other possible way to justify an action. Many things can influence how a person perceives justification of an action, including their environment and background.
This brief explanation of moral disengagement will hopefully allow us to have a better understanding of how traffickers, and anyone, can commit an act that might conflict with their usual understanding of moral values. I encourage you to delve deeper into Social Cognitive Theory, as well as other theories which seek to explain our behaviors.
Please feel free to comment or contact me with any questions or concerns.
McAlister, A. L., Perry, C., & Parcel, G. (2008). How individuals, environments and health behaviors interact: Social Cognitive Theory. In K. Glanz, B. Rimer, & K. Viswanth (Eds.), Health behavior and education: Theory, research, and practice (4th ed., pp. 169-188). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons