‘We all benefit from living in a world in which more people speak up in the face of all different kinds of problematic behavior,’ Sanderson says

Listen on Apple Podcasts • Google Podcasts • Spotify • Soundcloud

The right side of this image is a black-and-white headshot photo of Catherine Sanderson. The right side is black and white text on an orange background reading, "PAWCAST: Catherine Sanderson *97 on Creating Moral Rebels."

Why do some people step up to help or speak up in a crisis, while others don’t? On this episode of the PAWcast, Amherst professor Catherine Sanderson *97 explains how she analyzed the psychology of this phenomenon for her new book, Why We Act. She explains the science behind how we’re wired to behave as bystanders and shows that with the right tools, training, and education, anyone can be turned into a moral rebel.



Liz Daugherty: When faced with a crisis, a crime, or a case of bullying or discrimination, most of us hope we’d be the one to take charge and step in to help a victim. So why, when encountering such situations in real life, do so many people stay silent? To get to the bottom of this phenomenon, Amherst College professor Catherine Sanderson *97 combed through psychological studies and produced her latest book, Why We Act: Turning Bystanders Into Moral RebelsBy showing us how we’re wired to react in certain situations, and how that changes based on our experiences, our surroundings, and other factors, she hopes to tip the balance so more people who know what’s right stand up and show it. 

Catherine, thank you for coming on the podcast.

Catherine Sanderson: Thank you so much for this invitation to talk about this really important topic.

LD: Well, why don’t we start where your book begins. Do you want to tell me about the case at your son’s college that first prompted your interest in bystander action? 

CS: Yes. So, my son, Andrew, started college just about five years ago now and we dropped him off at his dorm, bought the rug at Walmart and the mini fridge, and we hung posters above his bed, and hugged him goodbye and drove home. And we didn’t really hear much from Andrew for the first couple weeks. Occasionally he would text and say, “How do you do laundry?” or, “Can I get some more money?” or something. 

And then, one day my phone rang and it was Andrew and his voice was breaking and he said, “A student died in my dorm last night.” And then he told me the story, and the story is one that, frankly, is familiar to everybody, not because you will know this student or this college, but because it happens with some regularity. The student had been drinking on a Saturday night, he fell and hit his head, and his friends and roommate watched over him for hours, because they wanted him to be OK. They checked to make sure he was still breathing, they put him in bed, they strapped a backpack around his shoulders to prevent him from rolling onto his back and vomiting and then choking to death. So, again, they cared about him and they wanted him to be OK. But what they didn’t do for nearly 19 hours was call 911. And when they finally did make that call, it was too late. The hospital kept the student alive on life support in time for his family to fly in from out of state to be with him when they disconnected him, but the student died. He was 19 years old in his first two weeks at college. 

And when Andrew told me that story, as a mom, my heart just broke for those parents, and as a college professor who, of course, teaches many, many students of that age all the time, I could just see that story playing out at my own school, at any school across the country, and that story was actually the prompt for this book.

LD: It was sort of shocking when I read through the different cases that you cite, because they’re peppered throughout all the book. And I should say it’s not all bleak, because you show plenty of examples of bystanders who do stand up, but the frequency with which this happens, and with which people who consider themselves to be good people, would never say or believe that they would stand by and watch something like this happen, yet they do. So, can you start to tell us a little bit about why? 

CS: Yeah. So, I love that question. And I want to say that when I wrote this book, and I sent it out to agents, I actually had chosen a different title. So, the book is called Why We Act. What I wanted to call the book was The Appalling Silence of the Good People. And to me, that was the message that strikes me again and again, that as you just said, we all envision ourselves to be good people, and yet, many, many of us, most of us, are appallingly silent good people, in all sorts of different circumstances. And what we know, and in fact what we know from lots of research being conducted at Princeton, is that good people are appallingly silent for lots of different reasons. 

And one of the key findings is that when we’re faced with a situation, we don’t exactly know how to interpret what’s happening. And there’s this challenge in terms of ambiguity, and all of us have been in cases in which we see or hear something, and we’re not exactly sure what we’re hearing or seeing. Is that harmless flirting, or is that sexual harassment, or sexual misconduct? Is that joke funny, or is it really kind of offensive and problematic? Are those people just horsing around or are they really in trouble in some way? And so, one of the challenges is in many situations, we see or hear something and we don’t exactly know what it is, so we look to other people. And the challenge is, everyone is looking to everyone else, and that inaction basically breeds inaction, because we don’t want to be the only one who speaks up and says something, and we’re then accused of being stupid or naïve, or overreacting in some way. 

LD: I was very interested in this effect you found where we believe the people around us think one thing, and it turns out we’re wrong. Like the fraternity brother who thinks that everyone in the room is OK with taking a drunk girl to their room. In fact, everyone in the room might believe, “No, this is not OK,” and that disconnect I found really fascinating.

CS: Yes. I absolutely agree, and I have to say that I remember sitting in a classroom in Green Hall at Princeton University as a graduate student, in which Debbie Prentice, who I believe is now the provost, described this phenomenon of pluralistic ignorance, which is the sort of jargony, psychology term for exactly what you’re describing, with this idea that we might be in a situation in which everybody privately is like, “Oh, that’s problematic,” or, “Oh, I’m not very comfortable with this,” and yet they falsely believe that other people are perfectly OK with whatever’s happening. 

And that situation plays out in lots of different circumstances, I think most famously in a paper, again, published at Princeton by Debbie Prentice and then formerly at Princeton, now at Stanford, Dale Miller, one of the classic  illustrations was that at Princeton, many students individually say, “There is really kind of too much drinking, that I wish there wasn’t so much drinking, I’m not comfortable with it, and I don’t drink that much,” but this false belief that everybody else at Princeton drinks all the time and is totally comfortable with it. And so, you have the situation where individually people are saying, “This is really problematic,” and they’re actually in the norm. They’re the majority. And yet, they don’t actually understand that their beliefs are normal, because people misinterpret what other people are thinking and feeling.

LD: Sure, and making assumptions, when in fact they could be asking and instead just going with the flow. I think you found the same thing, am I right, with college women and their self-image.

CS: Yes. In fact, I’m going to give credit to a former thesis student of mine, Princeton graduate, Candy Messinger. So, Candy and John Darley, formerly, who has now passed, but dear colleague at Princeton for many, many years, and really important mentor to me.

So, John Darley and Candy Messinger and I actually studied this phenomenon at Princeton. And we looked at — and this was Candy’s idea — because what Candy said was, “Women talk about how little they’ve eaten and how much they’ve exercised, and they don’t talk about the reverse.” And so, the idea is that women are going into the dining halls, and at the time, again, I’m far removed from the college dining hall experience now, but at the time it was described as tray-gazing, that women would be consciously aware of what other women were putting on their trays, and, “Gosh, I need to present in this public format of a dining hall, as drinking Diet Coke, and eating nonfat yogurt and salad, and that’s what I’m showing on my tray. I go back to my dorm room and I’m hungry because all I’ve had is Diet Coke and lettuce.” And yet, they’re eating privately because they’re hungry, and they’re not understanding that other women are doing the same thing.

We’ve also found, and again, I’m now at Amherst, we’ve found identical data at Amherst, which is that women on average believe other women are exercising more than they themselves are, because they, again, are misperceiving what other women are weighing, what other women are doing in terms of exercise because we talk about certain things, and we don’t talk about other things. And again, that same kind of misperception that we see in terms of alcohol use exactly plays out in terms of eating and exercise, and frankly, disordered eating behavior.

LD: That’s so interesting. So, you can be the one who is sitting there going, “I’m not OK with this thing that I’m seeing but I’m not going to step in, because all the people around me would look at me like I’m crazy.”

CS: That is exactly right. That is precisely what happens.

LD: That’s really interesting. And there’s also, you talk as well about — you talk about schools and colleges and also the workplace, so you’re really all stages of life here, you’re seeing this, and the slippery slope situation I thought was very interesting, too, this idea that a small act of misbehavior, or letting something slide, or not acting can become a big one, how little steps can lead up to big ones, and the importance of trying to stop it sooner, in order to prevent those bigger acts down the road.

CS: Right. I think that’s such an important point, because I think many times people sort of say, “Well, this is not that big a deal, I’m just going to overlook that, whatever, I’m just going to not say anything, because it’s a small thing.” But the challenge is, that when you don’t sweat the small stuff, the small stuff escalates. It in fact increases. And I think we see this in all kinds of situations. I think we see it in colleges, I think we see it in terms of bullying in schools, and I think we certainly see it in the workplace, that people overlook problematic behavior when it seems little or small, but that then conveys the impression that, “Oh, this is no real big deal,” and then that person gets the message, “Oh, this is no real big deal,” and that almost gives them permission to in fact escalate that behavior. 

So, I think one of the key findings that we know from research in psychology is that being able to actually step up and say something when things are small is easier than waiting until that small stuff has escalated.

LD: OK. Well, now that we’re all really depressed —

CS: (laughter) Sorry.

LD: That’s OK, about all the terrible people out there and how easy it is to not step up, there are people who do act. There are people who have done heroic things, who’ve stepped up, small situations, big situations. So, who are those people and what makes them clearly far superior to the rest of us?

CS: Yes. So, I’m going to say two things about that. One — I’m going to say the second thing first. So, first of all, we do know that there are some people, I call them moral rebels, who are people that seem to not fall prey to lots of the rest of the stuff that leads us to stay silent. So, who are these people? One, they tend to be really high in empathy. So, they tend to be very able to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes and imagine the world through that person’s perspective. So, that makes it easier to step up because you can say, “Well, wait, what if that was my daughter, or my friend, or my brother, or whatever? Then I would want someone to do something.” So, they tend to be to be high in empathy. 

Two, they tend to not really worry about being embarrassed in the same way. So, the sort of fear of looking stupid, or overreacting, they just aren’t as socially inhibited. And that’s important to recognize. 

And then, three, and as the mom of a really argumentative 17-year-old teenage daughter, I take a lot of solace in that, which is that the people who are good at arguing with their parents. And so, some fascinating research out of the University of Virginia has shown that teenagers who grow up arguing with their parents actually seem to be better able to stand up to peer pressure. And what the researchers think is going on is, basically, they kind of get some practice. So, you get to develop some skills arguing with Mom and Dad, and that then pays off when you are in a situation in which there’s problematic behavior, you already have some ability, or some training, really, to practice putting those skills into good use.

LD: I thought the empathy situation was very interesting, because, now, my son is in first grade and the school is teaching empathy. They have lessons where they are actively trying to teach it. Now, I’m not sure how effective it’s going to be, but I thought that was a very interesting point, that some of these traits, you would think that they are natural and innate, but you showed how you can actually learn them, right, and teach them?

CS: Yes. And first of all, I’m so glad that your son’s school is doing that, that’s always heartwarming that that’s being taught.

LD: I know, right?

CS: And so, we know that in fact, understanding that empathy is a muscle, that empathy is something that you can train and practice. There’s really interesting research out of Stanford looking at the ability to think about empathy as something that is changeable and not fixed is really important in fostering that. It’s also important to know that empathy can be based on something really subtle. 

One of my favorite examples which I describe in the book as research that was actually done in the United Kingdom, in which they looked at somebody in need of help, and the shirt they were wearing. And what they found was that you’re more likely to help somebody who’s in trouble who’s jogging and twists their ankle, so to speak, if they’re wearing a shirt that in fact is showing they support the same sports team that you support. So, it doesn’t have to be empathy where it’s my brother, or I’m genetically related, or we have this really important connection. It can be, “We both like the Chicago Cubs,” or whatever, and that can actually help create it. And I think that having this idea of putting ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, and practicing that muscle, developing that skill, is something really important for us all to kind of keep in mind, all the time.

LD: Like if you can look at anyone out there and say, “I have something in common with this person, because we’re both human,” and see the similarities instead of seeing the differences.

CS: Absolutely. And also, to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, even at a more distant level. So, I’ll give a couple examples. One, I wrote the book because I wanted to make sure, or I wanted to help ensure, that if my son were lying unconscious in a dorm room, one of those kids would have called 911 faster. And so, to me, it’s also saying, “How about if it were my kid in that situation, what would I want someone to do?” 

Shortly after this book came out — so my book was published in April of 2020, which for the record, really, really bad time to have a book tour, when there’s a global pandemic. But right after my book was published, one of my friends called me and said, “I want to tell you a story about my daughter.” And her daughter, Claire, was adopted from China when she was a baby. Claire is like, 22, 23 years old. She’s living in Boston when the pandemic hits. So, Claire is on a bus in Boston, crowded city bus going to work in March. And there is a man on the bus who stands up, points at Claire, and says, “You should go back to China. You and your fellow Chinese people have brought us this virus and you’re killing Americans, and you should go back to China.” The bus is crowded. Not a single person on the bus says anything. No one challenges the man. No one says for him to shut up or whatever. But also, no one goes over and just sits with Claire. Just sits with her, “Hey, what are you doing this weekend?” whatever, just distracts her, comforts her, supports her in any way. 

And that’s just an example. When my friend told me that story, I was like, “If it was my daughter on that bus, I would want somebody to go sit with her. I would want her not to feel alone.” And so, I think we can also all kind of think about the world more broadly, that if it was our kid, our spouse, our colleague, our friend, and they were being treated poorly, what would we want other people in that situation to do?

LD: So, let’s talk about the institutional level because I think that this is a really big piece of the puzzle, when we’re talking about trying to get more people to behave in these ways. I’m thinking, again, colleges, schools, companies, what can they do to set up their students or employees for action when the time comes?

CS: Super love that question. Because here’s what we know, and in fact, here’s what we know from some research conducted at Princeton, is that if you tell people, “Hey, people actually don’t think that — don’t drink as much as you think they do,” and, “Hey, women aren’t as thin as you think they are,” if you tell people about these processes, actually understanding the psychology of inaction helps people defeat those natural purposes. 

So, frankly, this conversation and helping people unpack the psychology of it, actually can go a long way towards defeating it. In schools, telling people, “Yeah, kids actually don’t like and respect bullies, they like people who stand up to the bullies, and they respect them.” Telling men on sports teams and in fraternities, “Hey, a lot of other guys think that you sound like a sexist pig when you say comments like that, we’re actually not in favor of it.” All of that is really helpful.

One of the organizations that I’ve gotten involved in, which I think is really making essential strides in ways that are really important for us as a society is a board called ABLE, which is Active Bystandership in Law Enforcement. This is a program that’s run out of the Georgetown University Law School, and what it does is it works with police departments across the country, doing exactly what I talk about in my book. And I talk about the ABLE program in chapter eight of my book. And so, I was asked to join the board, and what they’re doing is just revolutionary. They’re basically going to police departments, again, who would like them to come in, and they’re doing training on psychology. They’re talking about famous studies in psychology, including some done by John Darley, again, longtime Princeton professor in the psychology department who did some of the most fundamental work in this area, and they’re telling them about the psychology of inaction, and they’re training them in terms of how to speak up. 

Very briefly, I wrote an op-ed that appeared in USA Today, that was co-authored by a longtime, very famous person, Cornell Brooks, who is the longtime president of the NAACP, and Cornell and I wrote an op-ed right after George Floyd died. And what we described is there was so much attention being put on Derek Chauvin, who of course, kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and murdered him, but what occurred to me as a psychologist when I saw that horrific video was actually not what Derek Chauvin was doing. It was what his three colleagues were not doing. There were four officers there. And if the other three officers had pulled Derek Chauvin off of George Floyd’s neck, as they should have done, we wouldn’t know who George Floyd was, because he would be alive, and living and working in Minneapolis. 

And so, that is basically the gist of what the ABLE program is trying to do. They’re trying to train officers to step up when they have colleagues who are engaging in problematic behavior. And to me, that’s some of the most important lessons from the field of psychology that we can use, not only, of course, in police departments, but in law firms, in corporate boardrooms, you know, in Hollywood studios, in the Catholic church, in whatever, in all different kinds of institutions in which problematic behavior might be occurring. 

LD: I think you talked a little bit about the need to stop any kind of retaliation, as well, because in some organizations, for sure, the fear of retaliation is founded. So, you’ve got to get rid of that, am I right? Organizations might need to dig a little deep.

CS: Yeah, right. So, I think there’s two really important things about that. I think, one, setting up ways in which problematic behavior can be reported in a safe way, whether that’s anonymous or whether that’s whistleblower protections, or so on. We’ve all seen in high-profile examples of examples of, Theranos, for example, Harvey Weinstein, for example, in which problematic behavior continues because nobody calls it out. 

But the other thing which I really want to point at is that I also think that people who are in positions of power also have a responsibility to speak up, that there are times in which I’ve been in a meeting in which somebody says or does something problematic, and I speak up, because I have tenure, and it’s really hard to get rid of somebody who has tenure. And so, I’m in a situation in which I have the ability to speak up. And sometimes, colleagues have emailed me privately afterwards and said, “Hey, I didn’t feel comfortable speaking up because I’m coming up for tenure, or I’m a staff member and I don’t feel protected, and I really appreciate you giving voice to it.” So, I think there is a role of institutions in creating systems, and processes, and structures, that allow reporting, but I also think that individually, people who are in positions of power have a responsibility, really a moral obligation, to be able to speak up in the face of problematic behavior, as well.

LD: Well, and that gets into what I wanted to ask next, which is you’re talking about organizations, what about individuals? For individual people who are thinking about this and going, “I want to be that person who stands up, I want to know that in the right situation, I’m going to do the right thing.” Or, maybe from a parenting perspective, too, what can I do as a parent, for me, for my family, and try to turn my kids into these kinds of people? What would you say? 

CS: Yeah. So, again, super important question, and so I’ll say, first, I don’t think it’s one-size-fits-all. So, sometimes people say, “Well, I can’t be that person because I’m small, or I’m a woman, and that person might attack me, or I might get in trouble, or I need my job and I can’t lose it,” I don’t think it’s one-size-fits-all. What I think is that we all should have a repertoire of skills and strategies that we can use. 

And so, sometimes that might be standing up and saying, like, “Hey, that’s problematic,” but it doesn’t have to be standing up and saying, “You’re a jerk,” or “You’re stupid,” or “You’re racist.” It can be saying, “Oh, you know what? You probably didn’t mean it this way, but some people might think that when you say X, whatever,” it can be something of having a moment and saying, “Oh, let’s rethink how we’re going to phrase that,” or, “You probably didn’t mean it.” It can be assuming goodwill. I can also be saying, “OK, maybe I’m not going to speak up in this particular setting, but I’m going to talk to the person privately and say, ‘I was uncomfortable when you said X. I’m not going to call you out at a meeting, but I’m going to report it later on.’” It can also be going over and supporting someone, again, my example of on a crowded city bus. Maybe you’re not going to confront the person who’s sounding crazy, because maybe they have a knife. But instead, you’re going to go and support the person who has just been victimized in some way. 

So, I think to me, it’s understanding that ignoring bad behavior gives the person who is engaged in that behavior the message that it’s OK, and that no one finds it problematic. So, finding ways of interrupting the moment are important, but there are lots of different skills and strategies that we can use. In the final chapter of my book, I actually go through 10, 12 different kinds of strategies that people can use in different situations, because I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all. I think there may be different responses depending on, is this a relative at the Thanksgiving dinner, versus, are you with a stranger on a crowded city bus, are you in a boardroom, are you in a classroom, are you in a school, on a school bus, are you in a locker room? So, I think there’s different kinds of situations that call for different kinds of action, but understanding the core of the very normal psychology that leads to inaction, can frankly, give all of us insight into what’s causing our silence, and hopefully, then, we can develop skills and strategies that we can use that fit the moment and fit our own personal comfort.

LD: I liked the strategy that you gave about finding a friend, as well. Like, you might not want to be the one who stands up in front of the whole fraternity and says, “Now is the moment to call 911,” but a pull a friend aside and say, “Hey, let’s do this together.”

CS: Yeah, I think that is such an important one. Because often what we fear is standing alone. And so, if you’re in a situation where you have a colleague, a friend, a fraternity brother, a teammate, whatever, and you can talk to that person privately, “Hey, do you kind of find that problematic, or what do you think about that?” Having two people together actually gives us lots of confidence, and in many cases, we may not feel comfortable acting alone, but we feel a lot better if we’ve got someone else by our side.

LD: Now, I wanted to ask you, because this occurred to me as I was reading the book, you are probably highly attuned to all of this after writing this book, and I’m curious, have you felt a change in yourself at all, or have you found yourself thinking differently in situations since you did all this work?

CS: Yeah. So, I will say it’s impossible to have done this book and not be thinking about it all the time. I remember a case, pre-pandemic, so I was flying, and I was in the Atlanta airport which, again, not many of your listeners probably know, there’s that long monorail thing in the bottom where you’re going from terminal to terminal. So, I’m on my phone, I’m walking, changing flights, and I walk past a couple, and the man is vomiting into a trash can, and there’s a woman standing beside him and a whole lot of luggage. So, I’m on my phone and I’m busy, so I’m just walking, walking, walking, I pass them, and then I pause and I’m like, “Oh, that’s kind of a situation in which somebody could say something, and I’m writing this book.” 

So, I literally stopped, I got off the phone, and I walked back, and I said, “Excuse me, ma’am, do you need some help?” And she said, “Oh, my husband is just, you know, he’s very sick,” and I said, “Yes, I can see that.” I said, “I’m asking you if I could do something to help you.” And she said, “Well, actually, could you go get a wheelchair?” And I said, “Absolutely.” I went up the escalator, I went to the Delta counter and said, “We need a wheelchair downstairs.” So, it was not like me being a big medal of honor hero winner, this was me seeing a moment and saying, “Somebody could do something.” And if it was my mom vomiting profusely in a trash can alone, I would want someone to do something. 

So, I will say I am acutely aware of situations in which just one person making a teeny, tiny gesture could make a difference. And I will also say that I think I am much more likely now in meetings to say, “Hey, maybe I’m the only one, but I really think that we’re talking around this issue,” and I feel very comfortable assuming that other people feel like I do, and they’re just not saying it. And I will say, every time I’ve said something in a meeting that seems to be a little bit going against the flow of the conversation, I have had people, sometimes in the moment, but very often, email me or come up to me on campus afterwards and they’ll be like, “I’m so glad you said that. That’s exactly what I was thinking, but I didn’t feel comfortable saying it.” So, yeah. I will say that writing this book has given me, I think, more confidence that what I’m thinking or feeling, other people are also thinking or feeling, even if they’re not saying it, and that single people making a just a tiny little empathetic act can make a big difference.

LD: That goes through a lot of my questions. Was there anything else you wanted to add or anything else you’d like to talk about?

CS: No, I guess I want to say that this book to me feels super personal, and it also feels like a wonderful example of what I gained during my time at Princeton, that some of the most fundamental research on the topic of pluralistic ignorance and social norms, again, was done by Debbie Prentice and Dale Miller, who were my professors when I was at Princeton. Lots of the historic work on bystander, the bystander effect that many of your listeners might remember from Intro to Psychology was done by John Darley, longtime professor at Princeton, and I feel super fortunate to have written this book, and could not have written this book without my opportunity to pursue doctoral work at Princeton. So, this is kind of my way of giving back to colleagues who were so instrumental in forming the scholar and researcher and teacher I’ve become. So, thank you to Princeton.

LD: That’s lovely to hear. And thank you so much for taking the time to speak, today. I hope that maybe some people who listen to this might be prompted to act.

CS: Again, as I say repeatedly, we all benefit from living in a world in which more people speak up in the face of all different kinds of problematic behavior. So, I really appreciate this opportunity to talk, and I really do hope it inspires some moral rebels.

PAWcast is a monthly interview podcast produced by the Princeton Alumni Weekly. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Soundcloud. You can read transcripts of every episode on our website, paw.princeton.edu. Music for this podcast is licensed from Universal Production Music.