Sounds like a bit of jargon, doesn’t it? It probably qualifies as such but what the term refers to is of interest. Researchers in the 50s who were trying to explain criminal behavior coined the phrase which describes “justifications for deviance that are seen as valid by the delinquent but not by the legal system or society as large.” (These researchers, Sykes and Matza, are quoted on p. 295 in the article referenced below). If deviant actions can be justifiable then the offender avoids moral culpability.
In our teaching and learning world, neutralizing attitudes have been studied as students use them to justify cheating. Research has documented that students with these neutralizing attitudes are more likely to cheat. And, if they’ve justified their cheating actions once, these attitudes grow stronger.
Blaming others and attributing problems to external sources are prime examples of neutralizing attitudes that enable cheating. “I don’t have time to study because I have to work full time to pay for college.” “Cheating doesn’t hurt anybody else.” “ You can’t get into med school without really high grades.” “This teacher is a jerk and doesn’t care if I learn the material or not.”
Neutralizing attitudes cause students to cheat both directly and indirectly. The indirect influence becomes part of a constellation of factors that involve things like seeing other students cheat, whether the student is extrinsically motivated (cares more about grades than learning), and ineffective instruction along with a performance-oriented teaching style.
But as this research documents, when cheating is rampant, as it is at so many places, students no longer need neutralizing attitudes. “Neutralizing is only necessary for behaviors that violate one’s ethics. If cheating behavior is seen as normal, there is no violation of ethics and thus no need for neutralization.” (p. 310) If new students see other students cheating with impunity, there are few reasons not to follow suit.
Another point of interest raised by these researchers: the decision to cheat is not singular. Deciding to give another student information that will help that student with an exam is not the same as deciding to take an illicit copy of an exam, and deciding to cheat publicly on an in-class exam is not the same as deciding in the privacy of your room to pad the bibliography of a term paper. What motivates these decisions may be quite different.
Reference: Rettinger, D. A. and Kramer, Y. (2009). Situational and personal causes of student cheating. Research in Higher Education, 50 (3), 293-313.