“Merely Bystanders”: Professor Sanderson’s Lecture on the Psychology of Courage and Inaction

Amherst College Science Center

Would George Floyd still be alive if J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao took action against Derek Chauvin violently asphyxiating Floyd for eight whole minutes? Would countless numbers of women have been saved from sexual harassment if Quentin Tarantino spoke out against the acts of Harvey Weinstein that he was very much aware of? A myriad of tragedies could have been prevented if outside individuals took action in emergencies, but the important question lies in why they don’t. On October 3rd, 2020, Professor Catherine Sanderson of the psychology department spoke as part of the Cary Lecture Series to answer this question that clearly holds great implications in contemporary society.

Horrified to hear that her son’s dorm-mate had been killed by the simple inaction of his peers, Professor Sanderson set out to start her research on this so-called “bystander effect.” Using evidence from the news, personal experience, and past literature, Professor Sanderson outlined three main causes that inhibit people from intervening in situations that need interventions: perils of ambiguity, the question of responsibility, and considerable costs.

The perils of ambiguity illustrate how the urgency of situations can be unclear to passersby, who in turn look at the behavior of others and ultimately conform to the inaction. “We don’t want to look foolish, or feel embarrassed, or overreact,” Professor Sanderson added. Moreover, the question of who is responsible for helping out in the situation often deter bystanders from taking the responsibility themselves. This diffusion of responsibility plays out not merely in horrifying news events but also in everyday life. For example, the phenomenon of “social loafing” is prominent in group projects where members rely on others to do the work and exert less effort themselves. Finally, acting out and speaking up can come with considerable costs, including physical danger, harm to our professional lives, and social rejection. Tarantino, among others who stayed silent, indeed could have stopped the criminal acts of Weinstein if so many of their jobs did not depend on Weinstein.

Despite the gloomy consequences of the bystander effect, Professor Sanderson concluded her talk by offering a sense of hope that came out of her research. Providing training, fostering empathy, ensuring those with ethics and morals are placed in leadership positions, and finding friends to act together can all be strategies for overcoming silence and inaction. Revolutionary events, such as the Greensboro sit-ins in which four friends decided to stand against racism together, showcase how these strategies can be used to create positive change in this world. By further utilizing these tactics, Professor Sanderson optimistically asserted that we can ultimately change the culture we live in “to one in which speaking up, calling out bad behavior, stepping up for someone in need becomes normal and not what’s rare.”

Every year, Amherst College provides mandatory Bystander Intervention training to all its incoming first-years. Utilizing the knowledge from this training, we can all take a step towards creating this culture in which moral rebels outnumber silent bystanders.