CM 178: Catherine Sanderson on the Bystander Effect
When challenging situations arise, how do we make the shift from bystander to helper? What are the factors that determine whether or not we take action? And what if helping means disobeying an authority figure?
These are the kinds of questions that made me want to read Catherine Sanderson's latest book, Why We Act: Turning Bystanders into Moral Rebels, and to interview her on the show.
In particular, her discussion of the Milgram Shock Experiment, a study that's always fascinated me, got me thinking more deeply about those pivotal moments when we decide whether or not we're going to speak up or step in, rather than stand by.
For some background, the Milgram Shock Experiment was first conducted in the 1960s by Stanley Milgram, a psychology professor at Yale. He wanted to find out how far people would go in obeying an authority figure when their obedience knowingly caused harm to another person.
In the study, participants delivered an electric shock to a subject they couldn't see. The voltage increased with every wrong answer given. If they refused to administer the shock, a member of the research team - the authority figure - responded with one of four scripted statements.
The electric shocks weren't real, but the participant in the study didn't know that. If they refused to administer the shock, the authority figure would recite one of the four scripted statements, for example, "The experiment requires that you continue," or "You have not other choice but to continue."
Aside from statements like these, the authority figure never forced participants to deliver the shocks. Yet every participant did. Not one refused. Even when the person receiving the shocks sounded out in pain with moans, shouts, even pleas to stop, the participants kept going.
What Catherine talks about in her book, though, are the many participants who wanted to stop. The ones who communicated, at some point along the way, that they didn't want to continue. That's the moment I'm curious about. What would it have taken for them to disobey authority? And what would I have done in that same situation?
Catherine is a professor at Amherst College. She's studied what neuroscientists and psychologists have learned about why we stand by and why we speak up. She's also studied what leaders can do to make it safer for people to speak up, which training programs work best for teaching these skills, and what drives the brave souls who always speak up.
This week's shout-out goes to Emily Levesque, author of the book, The Last Stargazers
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