I was extremely lucky to write my psychology thesis with Catherine Sanderson—now the Poler Family Professor in Psychology—during her second year at Amherst. I remember researching, writing and revising my study in her living room while her oldest son, then a toddler, sat nearby in a bouncy chair. That son plays a key role in her new book, Why We Act: Turning Bystanders Into Moral Rebels (Harvard University Press), which offers lessons that can be applied to almost every aspect of the real world, from parenting to history to politics to business.

Two illustrated photos: a man lying on the ground surrounded by bottles and an ambulance in front of a house

Why did you write this book?

My oldest son called me one night, about two weeks after he started college, and his voice was breaking. He said, “Mom, a student died in my dorm.” He told me the story: The student had been drinking in his dorm on a Saturday night. He fell and hit his head. His friends, his roommate, his teammates—they watched over him for hours, because they wanted him to be OK. They were worried. They checked to make sure he was breathing. They strapped a backpack around his shoulders to make sure he wouldn’t roll onto his back, vomit and then choke to death. But what they didn’t do, for 19 hours, was call 911, and when they finally did make the call, it was too late. That story—as a mom, as a professor—stunned me. I immediately began to think about how things could have gone differently. That was the start of what led me to write this book.

An illustration of a man sitting in a dark hospital corridor

You dug into classic, well-known social psychological research, but you also conducted your own research. What did you find?

One thing that struck me in that story, and which I’ve examined off and on throughout my career, both at Amherst and as a graduate student at Princeton, is that there are many times in which people in a setting look to those around them to figure out what to do or think or how to behave. But everyone around them has a poker face, in which they’re trying to not indicate any sign of concern. That can lead people, such as in my son’s dorm, to not get the help they need. In collaboration with thesis students, I’ve conducted a number of studies that show that people often misperceive what others around them are thinking and feeling. College women, for example, tend to assume that other women weigh less than they themselves do. That’s research I’ve done with Diana Rancourt ’02, among others. We’ve found that the more you feel different from people around you, the more signs you have—in that study—of disordered eating.

Most encouragingly, we’ve found that informing people of this tendency to misperceive what others are thinking and feeling can go a long way toward improving behavior. Research I’ve done with Jenny Mutterperl Wallier ’00 has shown that telling women about that finding—that other women aren’t as thin and focused on being thin as you think they might be—reduces signs and symptoms of disordered eating. More recently, research I’ve conducted with Kaytee Turetsky ’12 has shown that talking to students about the very real prevalence of mental health disorders on college campuses, and their own willingness to seek mental health treatment when necessary, reduces stigma and improves positive attitudes toward seeking help.

Based on that research, in collaboration with my excellent thesis students, I understood how very important it would be to help people understand the factors that led to what happened in my son’s dorm, that understanding why those other students didn’t act might, in fact, give somebody the courage to step up if they were ever faced with that sort of situation.

In the book you coin the term moral courage and call people who show moral courage moral rebels. What is a moral rebel?

An illustration of a masked nurse in an operating room

It’s important to understand the role of workplace power dynamics, Sanderson says. For example, nurses report not speaking up when they see doctors take shortcuts.

A moral rebel is someone who feels comfortable, or at least willing, to call out bad behavior, even when that means defying or standing up to people around them who may not be acting. Moral rebels are more able to buck social norms and speak out in the face of bad behavior, whether it’s sexual misconduct, or a racist slur, or corporate fraud.

Are people born with the qualities of a moral rebel? If not, can a person become one?

I hope to delve into that question in my future research. But I think the answers are basically yes and yes. Some people are more naturally able to be moral rebels. Moral rebels seem to be less socially inhibited—they don’t worry so much about what others think or feel about them, and that makes it easier to speak up. They also tend to have high empathy, so they’re pretty good at putting themselves in somebody else’s shoes. But, importantly, I think it’s also something that we can train. As one example that is near and dear to me, as the mom of a 16-year-old girl who’s very argumentative, research has shown that children who argue with their moms in particular seem to be better at standing up to peer pressure. Researchers theorize that is because you get good at practicing arguing and speaking your mind and sharing your point by doing it at home. That skill then translates to social situations—a finding that I take a lot of solace and hope in.

The examples in the book about leadership resonated with me, especially the one from a Harvard Business School study about those who speak up and create a culture within an organization that encourages doing the right thing. Can you talk about this study and its implications for corporate culture?

We often have the assumption that nice guys finish last—that, well, I’d like to be an ethical leader, but, really, I have a responsibility to my company to make as much money as possible, and that leads me to cut some ethical corners, for example. This study found that, in fact, it was the opposite: that CEOs whose employees gave them high marks for character—for integrity, responsibility, compassion—had an average return on assets of more than 9 percent in a two-year period, which was five times larger than that seen for CEOs who had low character ratings by their employees. This suggests that ethical behavior pays off. Although the study was done specifically in a business environment, one can imagine that finding would translate to leaders in academic institutions, sports teams and so on.

Your book also discusses a study of nurses. That study showed that certain work cultures can actually have life-threatening consequences.

Some of the most fascinating research that I found in writing and researching for this book was done in settings in which there are strict hierarchies. So in a medical setting, for example, doctors are the highest on the power ladder. Many nurses report not speaking up when they recognize doctors taking shortcuts. They fear the consequences, that they don’t have a lot of power in that situation. The concern is that if they call out bad behavior, even if it’s potentially causing problems for patients, they could experience repercussions. It’s important to understand how power dynamics in many different institutions lead people to stay silent.

What did you learn about how the brain reacts to social rejection?

This is some of the research that I found the most interesting, and, in some senses, surprising. Research has shown that the experience of social pain—the pain that we experience when we are ostracized by people or rejected by our group in some way—activates the brain in precisely the same way it is activated when we experience physical pain. The pain of spilling hot coffee on your forearm, for example, that physical pain, activates the same part of the brain as social pain, rejection. That means we are highly motivated not to be ostracized by people in our group, because it literally feels painful. That helps explain some of the findings about why we go to great lengths to not call out bad behavior by our group members. We don’t want to be rejected. It feels terrible.

A photo of a woman in a black dress with long hair sitting in soft light
Catherine Sanderson at home this fall. In addition to Why We Act, her books include, most recently, The Positive Shift: Mastering Mindset to Improve Happiness, Health, and Longevity. Photograph by Tony Luong

You also write about the effect of pain medication, like Tylenol, on the experience of emotional pain. What can you tell us about that?

At the risk of encouraging everyone to start popping Tylenol, Advil and so on, research has shown that pain-relieving medicine reduces the experience of social pain, of rejection, of ostracism and so on, which provides even stronger evidence of this link at a neurological level.

I thought about your book over the summer, with the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. What lessons does Why We Act have for understanding this movement?

When I first saw the video of George Floyd’s death, what struck me was not the officer kneeling on his neck—it was the other three officers who did not immediately stop this inappropriate use of force. If they had intervened, Mr. Floyd would be alive today. In fact, Cornell Brooks, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and the former president of the NAACP, and I wrote an op-ed in USA Today that examines the role of bystander inaction in Mr. Floyd's death, and how reforms in social norms within police departments are urgently needed.

I’m also struck by the remarkable shift in social norms over the last few months. Within the month of June, attitudes shifted dramatically in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement, and resulted in long-overdue action—including, for example, the removal of the Confederate emblem from the Mississippi flag. We also saw a rapid shift in other norms, such as the now-constant presence on the Amherst campus and elsewhere of masks. These examples provide me with much hope—that social norms about all sorts of things can change rapidly, once they reach a certain tipping point. I’m hopeful that we’ll also see such a shift in people’s willingness to speak up in the face of all types of bad behavior.

What surprised you the most when researching and writing this book?

After what happened at my son’s college, I read both contemporary and classic articles, research and psychology to try to understand why those kids did not take action for 19 hours. That led me to other examples of what I call bystander inaction or bystander apathy. I talk in the book about the Holocaust and the people who ignored what was happening as Jewish people were being taken away. I talk about whites who watched lynchings in the public square in the South, and didn’t stop those atrocities. Over the last few years, we’ve seen case after case of sexual misconduct—Catholic priests in Pennsylvania, Harvey Weinstein, the USA Gymnastics doctor. In all of those cases, many people knew what was happening and did not step up. I remember reading a New York Times interview with actor/director Quentin Tarantino about Weinstein. Tarantino’s quote was, “I knew enough to do more than I did.” Many people knew what Weinstein was doing and didn’t speak up, and that’s why it continued. What surprised me at a core level as a psychologist was that those disparate examples, both historical and in the present day, are all rooted in the same thing: there are good people who are staying silent.

What’s one thing you want people to take away from the book?

The dedication, which comes from a famous quote by Martin Luther King Jr., is to my children: “For Andrew, Robert and Caroline, with the hope that you will never stay silent about things that matter.” That was my goal in writing the book—to give people an understanding of the psychological factors that lead to inaction, and to give people, therefore, the tools and courage and strategies to speak up in the face of bad behavior of all types.

Is this book going to become an Amherst class, and when?

In an interesting case of a full circle, I started writing and teaching about the psychology of good and evil about a decade ago. Later the dean of the faculty’s office sponsored a wonderful book-proposal workshop, given by a book editor. I signed up, and I emailed the editor to ask, “I’ve been reading and talking about this, and this happened in my son’s dorm. Do you think it’s a book?” She said, “I do think it’s a book.” So is it going to become a class? It probably will become a class in some way, or revert back to a class. This is a topic that I think is highly relevant for college students, high school students and, really, all of us.

Kim Karetsky ’99 is the founder and CEO of KHK Leadership & Learning, a consulting business that designs and implements customized professional development and leadership services to organizations and individuals. She previously worked in leadership and professional development at Goldman Sachs & Co. and JPMorgan Chase. This article is adapted from an interview for the Amherst Reads book club.

Illustrations by Joseph Gough