Who Will Stand Up?

A new book challenges us to become moral rebels and assures us that it’s not as hard as we might think.

By Gary Drevitch, published February 25, 2020 - last reviewed on March 11, 2020

Josef Polc/Alamy
Josef Polc/Alamy

When my son’s middle school announced that its “word of the year” would be upstander and that it would be supported by multiple lessons, workshops, and special programs, it was not the most popular decision. Many parents wondered aloud why, along with the academic pressures kids already faced, they would now also be required, in their spare time, to become paragons of virtue, a state perceived as unnatural for a bunch of 12- and 13-year-olds.

Shame on us. In her new book, Why We Act, Amherst College professor Catherine Sanderson makes a powerful argument for building, as early as possible, the ability to stand up for what’s right in the face of peer pressure, corrupt authority, and even family apathy. Citing case after case revealing how easy it is for people’s moral instincts to be muted, and detailing how that silence is visible on brain scans, Sanderson guides readers toward her inevitable conclusion: We can do better, we know how, and the tipping point to convert a virtue-challenged culture into a virtuous one is closer than we think.

Sanderson devotes equal space to the research revealing why so many people become passive bystanders when they witness lying, bullying, sexual assault, and other offenses as she does to findings on what distinguishes those who do stand up.

“This belief that bad behavior is caused by bad people is reassuring and comforting,” Sanderson writes. “Unfortunately, it’s also wrong.” Good people are complicit in bad behavior all the time—even if they are horrified by it—especially when they are part of a group like a fraternity, a rogue army platoon, or any cohort taking part in a problematic “tradition.”

In the late 19th and early 20th century, lynchings of African Americans took place in public squares in the United States. Historical research can’t trace every spectator’s motivation, but one study found a strong correlation between the size of the gathered crowd and the level of violence perpetrated at lynchings. Modern functional magnetic resonance imaging studies show that we indeed think less about ourselves when we are in a group than when we are alone and that we experience our actions less intensely when we are following orders than when we act on our own.

Many people can identify with having a gut instinct that an order or instruction is wrong, or at least does not fit with their values. That internal struggle represents an opportunity, Sanderson argues, if people can be helped to develop the confidence to follow their conscience. It’s why children really do need to learn how to be upstanders, or her preferred term, “moral rebels.” Those who can stop, step back, and take time to think are far more likely to do the right thing.

Just as our sense of the crowd can discourage us from intervening, a virtuous group can motivate us to act. Studies of bullying have found that students’ perception of their school’s social norm is a stronger predictor of whether they will intervene to help a classmate than is their own reported belief that they would do so. When students believe their peers are likely to stand up to a bully, they’re more likely to step up themselves.

The Power of Moral Rebels

Sanderson is fascinated by what makes moral rebels tick. Self-esteem is key, but so is a certain level of arrogance. Moral rebels, research shows, feel pretty good about themselves. They have confidence in their judgment and values and believe that when they intervene, their actions will make a difference, so much so that they will speak up even if it goes against their peer group’s norms. They are also likely to agree that their views are superior to those of others, and that they therefore have an obligation to speak up. They agree with statements like “If everyone saw things the way that I do, the world would be a better place.”

Empathy, of course, is also a big part of the mix. Most people are empathetic; the problem, Sanderson writes, is that they may not realize others are as well. “You don’t have to change the social norm,” Michael Haines of Northern Illinois University has said. “You just have to show people what it is.”

College students exposed to a single 30-minute video depicting young people standing up to peers who would sexually assault a young woman became more confident that they too would intervene—and were, in fact, more likely to do so in the following month. Most young men in the generally dispiriting studies of fraternity brothers and varsity athletes Sanderson cites find sexually aggressive behavior offensive; what keeps them quiet is their assumption that everyone around them thinks it’s OK. Evaluation apprehension kicks in, and they stay quiet for fear of losing social standing. That’s how the bad actions of a few influence the identity of a group.

For anyone who may not yet have the confidence to speak up, there is hope: Sanderson is confident that when people are shown examples of moral courage in action, they will find their own moral strength.

Apathy can be represented as a slippery slope—perhaps one that starts with sitting silently next to your boss at a meeting while she lies about your company’s profits and prospects and ends with your falsifying financial records. But so can moral action. The most successful antibullying programs take just this approach, encouraging young people to intervene at the first instance of name-calling rather than staying silent as abuse progresses to after-school violence.

The best predictor of moral action, both positive and negative, is the size of the like-minded group. Sanderson leaves readers with this enticing finding from University of Pennsylvania research: Large-scale social change doesn’t require a silent majority, just a vocal cohort. If approximately 25 percent of the members of any group take a stand, that is enough to create a tipping point that leads to the establishment of a new norm.

“A single voice can be enough,” Sanderson proposes at the end of her empowering work, “when that one person gives others the courage to speak up.”

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