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.
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?
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.