Catherine Sanderson on Turning Bystanders into Moral Rebels

Why do good people so often do nothing when a seemingly small action could make a big difference? 

In her new book, Why We Act: Turning Bystanders into Moral Rebels (Harvard University Press, 2020) Catherine Sanderson explains why moral courage is so rare – and reveals how it can be triggered or trained.

Sanderson is a Professor of Psychology at Amherst College.

“We are bombarded every day by reports of bad behavior, from sexual harassment to political corruption and bullying belligerence,” Sanderson says. “It’s tempting to blame evil acts on evil people, but that leaves the rest us off the hook. Silence, after all, can perpetuate cruelty.”

Sanderson reports on studies that show how deviating from the group activates the same receptors in the brain that are triggered by pain. But she also points to many ways in which our faulty assumptions about what other people are thinking can paralyze us.

How did this book come about?

“This is a pretty sad story,” Sanderson told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “My oldest child started college. Andrew was 19. He had done a gap year in Peru before attending college. We didn’t hear much from him. Then two weeks into his first year, he called me and said – a student in my dorm died last night. I was struck as a mom. I have Andrew and two younger siblings. I was struck as a college professor.”

“I was struck by the familiarity of the story. The story was – a student was drinking, he fell and hit his head. And then a bunch of kids who cared about him, liked him, watched over him to make sure he was okay – they strapped a backpack around his shoulders to make sure he wouldn’t roll onto his back and asphyxiate in his own vomit. They were worried about him. They made sure he was still breathing.”

“But what they didn’t do for 19 hours was actually call 911. And by the time they did, it was too late. The kids’ family flew in to be with him when he was disconnected from life support. But he died. He was 19 years old in the first two weeks of college. He was a varsity athlete, recruited lacrosse player.” 

“That story shifted my whole thinking. All I could think about was – could things have gone differently? I shifted my focus of research and started examining what leads people to not step up and do the right thing.”

What did you find out about why they didn’t call 911?

“These students worried about getting in trouble, they worried about getting him in trouble, they thought it was no big deal, they thought he was simply drunk and over time would shake it off. And that of course is what you hear time after time with these incidents. The other case I outline in the book that is similar is the Penn State case. The young man, Tim Piazza, who fell down a flight of stairs during a hazing ritual at this fraternity. He lay on the couch in the living room of his fraternity with his abdomen filling with blood.” 

“Lots of people saw him and looked the other way. And ultimately he died as a result. The story is similar. People worry about the consequences for themselves, their fraternity, their sports team, their corporation and they fail to take action. That story happens time and time again.”

These examples that you give in your book, which are primarily not from the corporate context, they are from fraternities and colleges and sports teams – and generally not corporate life. 

Is it easier for the public to understand those examples than inaction in the corporate context?

“It’s easier to see the level of – this is us versus them. I have talked to broader audiences. But whatever the context, people can identify something that has happened to them. They will say – yes, I remember when I was in an interview, I knew something was not right going on.” 

“There are episodes that people can connect to their own lives. I’m hoping this book gives people a chance to reflect on their own personal and professional lives.”

In reading your book, I kept thinking back to the most egregious corporate cases of our recent reporting. Let’s talk about the Takata airbag case. People within the company knew of the risks of these airbags exploding like hand grenades and decapitating the driver or passengers of the car. And most didn’t take action.

What would a corporation take from your book to make sure that this culture of silence doesn’t take hold?

“That’s an extraordinary example. An earlier version of the book, I had described at some length what happened with the Space Shuttle Challenger. That example didn’t make the final edits. But that was a similar example where engineers were concerned about the O-rings in the space shuttle, they kept bringing the risks to the attention of the corporate higher ups, and the corporate higher ups said – shut up, take off your engineering hats and put on your marketing hats. They were keen to send up the space shuttle with the school teacher on board. And of course, the space shuttle exploded three minutes after liftoff.”

“That’s another example of people concerned about the potential loss of life and major catastrophe and they did not speak up. So, yes, my book absolutely speaks to that. Helping people understand what inhibits them from speaking up is important. And it’s important for people in a position of leadership to evaluate evidence, to make tough decisions – you need to hear from everyone and you need to be able to understand – how can you hire people who are going to make the tough call? Initially people may not have reported or acted because of the consequences of doing so. But when the information finally went public, it was costly for that company.” 

“My book tries to help people understand the factors that lead people not speaking out, how can we foster people to speak up so that we can prevent tragedies like that from occurring. But it needs to be not just the person at the lowest level, but people in the boardroom who are trustees, who are board members – making these tough decisions, who understand the factors that lead to ethical decision making. This has implications for hospitals, for law firms, for the military, for virtually all organizations.”

How do we turn bystanders into moral rebels?

“People have said that the beginning parts are depressing. I spend the first five chapters describing why people do rotten things. But I’m not just saying – here is why good people stay silent. I’m also giving insight how understanding these factors can lead us to overcome them.” 

“There are three things to recognize. First, understand the psychology of inaction. And that understanding helps us overcome it. That’s why I didn’t say anything at the hockey game. Or that’s why I didn’t say anything when I came across that scene at the airport. That’s why I didn’t speak up at Thanksgiving dinner. Understanding the psychology that inhibits action helps people understand their own inaction and gives people the courage to speak up.”

“Second, I discuss the traits of people who tend to speak up. What do we know of the people who do tend to call out the bully, to be a whistleblower in the corporate setting, who are the people who stand up and do the hard thing, what traits do those people have in common? And we can learn to instill those traits in ourselves and our children.”

“And third, in the final chapter, I examine skills and strategies we can use so that when we are in a situation, we have the ability to act. Most of us have been in situations where in retrospect we say – I wish I had acted. What I’m hoping my book does is give people skills and strategies they can use to act in the moment – to turn bystanders into moral rebels.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Catherine Sanderson, see 34 Corporate Crime Reporter 16(12), Monday April 20, 2020, print edition only.]

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