Psychologists have profiled the kind of person who is willing to confront anti-social behaviour

Alex Fradera

“Lower your music, you’re upsetting other passengers.” Without social sanction, society frays at the edges. But what drives someone to intervene against bad behaviour? One cynical view is that it appeals to those who want to feel better about themselves through scolding others. But research putting this to the test in British Journal of Social Psychology has found that interveners are rather different in character.

The French-Austrian collaboration team led by Alexandrina Moisuc conducted a series of studies asking participants to read hypothetical scenarios involving anti-social behaviour such as someone tearing up posters, spitting on the pavement, or throwing used batteries into a flower pot in a shared yard. The use of hypothetical scenarios and intentions can be considered a limitation of the study, as this may not truly reflect real-world action; on the other hand, it allowed the researchers to investigate a broader range of situations.

Participants were asked how they would respond, on scales that ranged from total inaction through sighing to addressing the transgressor mildly or aggressively. They also rated how morally outraged they felt about the transgression, with higher ratings correlating strongly with a desire to intervene. In addition, participants rated themselves on their personality and other traits.

Moisuc’s team thought that one candidate personality profile of an intervener could be the “Bitter Complainer”: a person with low self-esteem who uses hostility towards others to feel better about themselves. There is some limited past evidence to support this view: for instance, experiments that make people feel more insecure lead them to judge others more harshly. Social sanctions are effectively a form of “altruistic punishment” (because they are for the wider social good) and some research on punishment in economic games shows that low-empathy individuals are more willing to punish others. On the other hand, the researchers anticipated that perhaps people with a personality more akin to the archetype of a  strong leader might be more inclined to step in.

Moisuc and her colleagues found that traits like self-esteem and low levels of social capital – the “bitter” components – and also traits associated with lashing out, such as aggressiveness, poor emotional regulation, and social dominance orientation (seeing the world as hierarchical and so potentially wanting to put others down to keep yourself up), had no, or even a negative, relationship with preparedness to act. This was true in student samples in Austria and France, and a further French non-student sample; in total around 1100 participants.

The personality factors that were associated with an intention to speak out included extraversion, confidence, persistence, being good at regulating emotions, valuing altruism and being comfortable expressing opinions. Those who already felt socially accepted, and happy to take on social responsibility – such as voting and paying taxes – were also more likely to say they would intervene. This is a very different picture from the Bitter Complainer. These traits are related to successfully managing difficult situations in teams, and to taking the risk to whistle-blow on organisations. Accordingly, Moisuc’s group characterises this as the “Well-adjusted Leader.”

The data also indicated a connection between willingness to intervene and holding  anti-prejudicial attitudes: lower “social dominance” was associated with speaking up, both in the more generic scenarios and a subset that involved racist or sexist behaviour.

It can be convenient to explain away other people’s pro-social behaviour as selfishly motivated, as that justifies our own inaction. These findings undermine that negative interpretation, suggesting that those who intervene are those well-adjusted to deal with difficult encounters, and a sense of responsibility toward their environment and the greater good. This is a call to examine ourselves: what do we need to set right in our own lives so that we can defend the world we truly want?

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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