Mike Pence and the Bystander Effect in Action

Why did Mike Pence not wear a mask? The bystander effect helps us understand.

Posted May 03, 2020

A few weeks ago a friend emailed me to share a story about her daughter, Claire, a recent college graduate living and working in Boston. In March, as it was starting to become clear that the coronavirus was going to severely impact daily life in Massachusetts, Claire, who is Asian, was on the bus heading into work when a clearly crazy man started yelling at her. He told her that she needed to go back to China and that the Chinese people caused all these problems. Being verbally assaulted on public transportation was obviously unsettling. But what was even more horrifying to her mom was that not a single person on the bus came to Claire’s defense.

I thought about this story last week after seeing the video footage of Vice President Mike Pence touring the Mayo Clinic, surrounded by people—medical personnel as well as reporters—wearing masks while he himself is not wearing one. The Mayo Clinic in fact has a policy that requires people, as of April 13, to wear a mask. They even provide them. Yet Pence chose to ignore their policy, offering the excuse that he’s “tested for the coronavirus on a regular basis.” (The Mayo Clinic policy does not exclude those who are repeatedly tested.)

We all know why Pence chose not to wear a mask: he reports directly to the president, who’s publicly stated his own preference is not to wear a mask and has a tendency to downplay the severity of the virus at every opportunity. 

But what I find most fascinating is that no one at the Mayo Clinic spoke up and refused to allow Pence to enter the hospital without wearing a mask. After all, the Mayo Clinic’s official policy requires “all patients and visitors to wear a face covering or mask to help slow the spread of COVID-19.” 

geralt/Pixabay
Source: geralt/Pixabay

Research in my field of social psychology partly explains their silence, and could help more of us to act when the time comes to step up.

First, many people are reluctant to call out problematic behavior committed by people in high power positions, even if it can have extremely serious consequences. Research by Dr. William Martinez and his colleagues at Vanderbilt University Medical Center has shown that even in medical settings—where a failure to speak up when a colleague does something unsafe may mean the difference between life and death—people will often fail to speak up if doing so requires challenging a person of higher authority (a nurse, say, challenging a doctor). Perhaps Mayo Clinic administrators feared reduced access to much-needed testing kits or a potential future vaccine if they refused to allow Pence to enter without a mask. 

Second, Pence was not alone. Numerous studies have shown that most of us are less likely to intervene when other people are present. Why? In part because we assume that others will do something, so we don’t have to—this is the classic “bystander effect.” This phenomenon, which psychologists refer to as “diffusion of responsibility,” means that the more people present in any given situation, the lower the likelihood of anyone acting to right a wrong. So, if Pence had been escorted into the Mayo Clinic by a single person, that person may well have insisted that the policy be followed. But as he was surrounded a large group, each individual person may well have been horrified by his choice—and remember, all of the people with Pence were in fact wearing masks—while also assuming that surely someone else would speak up, and if they didn’t, perhaps it wasn’t so bad after all. 

Alexas_Fotos/Pixabay
Source: Alexas_Fotos/Pixabay

Although this situation may seem unique—few of us will be faced in the upcoming weeks with an opportunity to call out bad behavior on the part of the vice president—it’s really not. Because we are all faced with similar dilemmas all the time: How do we speak up in the face of bad behavior, whether it’s an authority figure engaging in behavior that risks our own health, a student bullying a classmate, a police officer planting evidence, or a crazy man yelling ethnic slurs on public transportation.

So, what can we do? It turns out there are specific skills you can cultivate so as not to come across as too confrontational. One strategy for speaking up which has been found to be effective, is to suggest that the problem is really about you, not them. This reduces the risk that you will make the person defensive, while clearly indicating that their comment or behavior was wrong. So, a member of the medical staff at the Mayo Clinic could have said, “I have a relative with an autoimmune disorder and really need to keep them safe,” or, “I could lose my job if I let you in without a mask on.” This approach clarifies the need for appropriate behavior, but doesn’t make the person appear stupid or bad. Instead, it shifts them to your side.

Another approach that social psychologists have found effective is to expand your "in group" and actively seek to identify with the person who is the victim of the person’s bad behavior. Many programs designed to empower people to intervene when witnessing bad behavior, such as bullying or sexual assault, focus on fostering empathy for the victim to motivate bystanders to step up. As research by Stanford University psychologist Jamil Zaki has shown, empathy is a skill that can be developed. Some people may naturally and easily be able to see the world through someone else’s eyes, but for the rest of us, finding the courage to speak up may start with an act of imagination. Would you want others to stay silent if your parent were a patient at the Mayo Clinic, or your daughter the one being assaulted on a bus?