Confronting Bad Behavior

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Confronting Bad Behavior

Jim Windell


            Recently, my wife, Jane, was in a gas station paying for a fill up when she heard the owner of the station berating a female employee.

            Unlike others standing in line who pretended not to notice the incident, Jane spoke up.

            “If you want me to be a customer here,” she said, “you need to treat your employees better. You had no right to talk to her that way – certainly not in front of other people.”

            Jane paid and left to pump the gas in her Honda.

            We don’t know the outcome of her intervention. But what we know from new research, just published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, people need to speak up when they see antisocial behavior.

          The research was conducted during lead researcher Anna Tirion’s undergraduate psychology studies at the University of Bath in Bath, England, when was doing a placement year at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. The studies investigated the effect of bystander responses to social confrontation in the context of Covid-19 social distancing rules – rules which were in place in most European countries in 2020 and 2021.

          Participants were shown various scenarios where someone confronted a social distancing rule-breaker (for instance, someone hosting or attending a party during lockdown) to see the effect of different bystander reactions on how strong participants found the norm of following the rules. Bystander responses could be support, silence, or changing the subject. Tirion and her colleagues also measured to what extent the participants thought the bystanders agreed with the confronter based on their reaction. When the confronter was left without support, participants concluded that the bystanders did not strongly agree, leading them to think the norm to socially distance was weak.    

          Despite the specific Covid context, the researchers say that understanding the mechanisms of this behavior makes it widely applicable to social confrontations in the workplace, on public transport, and in society at large. 

          “How bystanders can lend their support depends a bit on the situation,” says Tirion. “If your face is visible to everyone, like on the Zoom call we simulated in one of our studies, simply nodding might be enough to send that supportive signal. Otherwise, a verbal expression of support like ‘Yeah, you’re/they’re right’ should do it. If you’re physically some distance away from the confrontation, you might want to go stand next to the confronter before you say something so your whole body language expresses that support - if you feel safe to do so.”

          According to co-author Dr. Annayah Prosser, from the University of Bath’s School of Management, “There is a personal cost for people to go against the norm, to cause tension and friction. Even if people find someone’s behavior unacceptable, there is a social norm against speaking up. Causing friction is uncomfortable and this can hold people back.”

          Sometimes people may also be reluctant to step in for fear of overkill, but the researchers say this is far from the current reality. “People’s intuitive response can be that it will be a ‘pile-on,’ but this is not a problem currently,” explains Dr. Prosser. “People are taking a lot of social risk to intervene and going unsupported. We need to make sure intervention against anti-social behavior is supported by bystanders, and not just met with silence.”

          What this research suggests is that witnesses to anti-social behavior must speak up to support the lone voices of people who confront it to reduce the risk of such behavior becoming tolerated in society. The three studies conducted into the impact of bystander conduct showed that when bystanders step in to support someone who is calling out mistreatment or harmful behavior it sends a strong message to onlookers that this behavior is unacceptable; this, in turn, helps to prevent a gradual erosion of social norms.

          Although Jane didn’t need anyone in the crowd to support her, anyone else who expressed support for Jane’s position would have been sending a messages to others that the man’s behavior was wrong.

          To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Tirion, A.S.C, Mulder, L.B., Kurz, T., Koudenburg, N., Prosser, A.M.B., Bain, P. & Bolderdijk, J.W. (2023). The sound of silence: The importance of bystander support for confronters in the prevention of norm erosion. British Journal of Social Psychology, 2023; DOI: 10.1111/bjso.12709

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