The literature has suggested that to understand the diffusion of unethical conduct in the workplace, it is important to investigate the underlying processes sustaining engagement in misbehaviour and to study what occurs during vocational education. Drawing on social-cognitive theory, in this study, we longitudinally examined the role of two opposite dimensions of the self-regulatory moral system, regulatory self-efficacy and moral disengagement, in influencing academic cheating behaviour. In addition, in line with the theories highlighting the bidirectional relationship between cognitive processes and behaviour, we aimed to also examine the reciprocal influence of behaviour on these dimensions over time. Overall, no previous studies have examined the longitudinal interplay between these variables. The sample included 866 (62.8% female) nursing students who were assessed three times annually from the beginning of their vocational education. The findings from a cross-lagged model confirmed that regulatory self-efficacy and moral disengagement have opposite influences on cheating behaviour, that regulatory self-efficacy negatively influences not only the engagement in misconduct but also the justification mechanisms that allow the divorce between moral standards and action, and that moral disengagement and cheating behaviour reciprocally support each other over time. Specifically, not only did moral disengagement influence cheating behaviour even when controlling for its prior levels, but also cheating behaviour affected moral disengagement one year later, controlling for its prior levels. These findings suggest that recourse to wrongdoing could gradually lead to further normalising this kind of behaviour and morally desensitising individuals to misconduct.
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- Regulatory self-efficacy
- Moral disengagement
- Unethical behaviour
- Longitudinal study