February 19, 2018

What Would You Do?

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

Consider the following scenario: You are in a clothing store shopping for a new outfit. As you are browsing through the selections you notice that a black female customer is being targeted unfairly by a sales clerk. Instead of allowing this customer to shop freely as you are, the sales clerk is following her around, constantly asking her what she wants, making obnoxious comments to her, and eventually telling her that she should leave the store.

What would you do? Would you say something to the sales clerk or seek out a manager to complain? Would you say something to support the customer and voice your concern over the way she is being treated? Or would you continue on with your business and pretend to ignore the interaction you just witnessed?

This scenario comes from the ABC television show, What Would You Do?. Using actors to stage situations like this one, the show examines how people react when they witness problematic behavior. Discrimination is the most common theme in the show as many scenarios involve individuals being treated unfairly because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ability, or age.

The big question this show is getting at is whether people will get involved when they see something that they know is not right. Social psychologists refer to this as the bystander effect: the extent to which people will intervene and help someone who is being victimized. Situations might involve direct cases of discrimination as in the scenarios of the television show or more subtle examples such as when you are in the company of people who make racists, sexists, or bigoted comments or jokes. Even though there may be no direct victim in those instances, such situations still beg the question: What would you do? Speak up or stay quiet?

A set of stairs in a public train terminal. There is legible text on the stairs that reads If you see something say something. Tell a cop or Call 1-888-NYC-SAFE
Photo courtesy of the author

Interest into the bystander effect began with the famous case of Kitty Genovese in 1964. Genovese was rapped, stabbed, and murdered on a street in Queens, New York by Winston Moseley (interesting side note: Moseley went on to earn a BA in sociology while serving life in prison and wrote a New York Times op-ed repenting for his actions).

Multiple people in nearby buildings heard Kitty Genovese’s screams and pleas for assistance but there were concerns that people ignored her. After this tragedy, researchers began studying how, when, and why people will come to the aid of those in need of help.

The topic of the bystander effect and whether people will intervene when they witness wrongdoings has always been a relevant and important issue. In Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times, Eyla Press documents the case of four individuals throughout history who did intervene despite the severe consequences they might (and oftentimes did) face. The moral conviction of these individuals to act or speak out despite the backlash they suffered is both inspiring and sobering. Much like watching the ABC television show, reading these historical examples leaves one wondering: What would I do in those situations?  

Much of the research that has studied bystander interventions looks at the psychological motivations of individuals who are in a position to intervene. But equally important are the meanings that people attribute to certain situations. It is the meanings of things that serve as motivation for our actions. If we don’t understand how people define the situation we will not be able to understand why they chose to speak up or remain silent. In this sense, bystander intervention is as much a sociological issue as it is a psychological one.

To help us understand how our actions are informed by the meanings of things we can turn to Herbert Blumer’s theory of symbolic interactionism. Blumer argued that “human society consists of people engaging in action” and if want to understand human action we need to know how people make sense of their world. To capture this sociological process, Blumer identified three premises of symbolic interaction.

The first premise is that we act toward things based on the meanings they have for us. If you see someone being harassed, bullied, or discriminated against, the chance of you acting is dependent on whether or not you actually recognize this behavior as problematic. Even then, there is no guarantee you may intervene. You may see the situation as problematic but you may come to the conclusion that it may be even more problematic if you intervene. The act of intervening, then, is determined by the meaning you give to the situation and also the meaning you give to the potential actions you may take.

The second premise is that the meanings of things emerge through our social interactions; in other words, they are socially constructed. We learn from our social interactions with others (parents, peers, teachers, and media) the definition of things like harassment, bullying, and discrimination. If we are taught about these things and realize that they are problematic then it will be much more likely that we will intervene when we witness them. But if we don’t learn about these things or if we learn that they are not important or problematic, then this may make us less inclined to act.

The third premise is that meanings are used and sometimes are changed through an interpretive process. Meanings are fluid, not static. The meanings that things have for us may change based on the context in which we view them. For example, if you see a group of young children bullying another child you may feel comfortable intervening. However, if you see a group of adults bullying another adult the meaning of the situation may change for you because you may be concerned for your own safety if you intervene. Bullying takes on a different meaning to you in each context and therefore your actions in response to it may also differ.

There been a number of high profile cases in the news lately of people not intervening when they witnessed wrongdoings. Whether it’s individuals not taking action against known sexual predators such as Harvey Weinstein and Larry Nassar, or the silence and denials of Republican politicians over Donald Trump’s “shithole” comments or his undeniable racism, we don’t have to dig too deep to find contemporary examples of inaction.

Hearing these stories in the news should make us all pause and ask ourselves: what would I do if I knew someone was being sexually harassed or assaulted? What would I do if I heard someone make bigoted and hurtful comments toward others? Would I stay silent or would I speak out?

If you are unsure about how to act in these scenarios you may want to see if your school or community offers any bystander intervention trainings. Many schools and universities participate in Step Up!—a program that teaches people about common obstacles to intervention so that they are more likely to intervene in the future.

Stepping up, speaking out, and taking action are not easy things to do. But it’s even more difficult to be in the situation of the person being victimized. So maybe in addition to asking the question “What would I do?” we should also be asking ourselves a more empathetic question that might actually help us take some form of compassionate action: “How would I feel if that were happening to me?”


Thanks for the post. If this guy have been educated earlier before he does his actions. Things would never have happened then.

Thanks for the post. I feel it's important to talk about these kids of situations. Not everyone is a hero or has the courage to stand up and do something about seeing someone else in problem. If you don't have the courage to do so you should call the cops and get someone who do. You may just save that person life.

This article offered a unique perspective on the topic that I hadn't considered before. It was thought-provoking and insightful.

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