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'Why We Act': What Makes People Decide To Speak Up Or Stay Silent

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

First the voices demanded that Black lives mattered. Then we saw the video of an officer pinning down George Floyd by his neck. And that's when we started to see a groundswell, thousands of people in cities and small towns throughout the country demanding racial justice. And this time around, they weren't just Black voices. White people joined in numbers we've not seen in recent history.

It's something that could've come directly out of psychologist and author Catherine Sanderson's latest book "Why We Act: Turning Bystanders Into Moral Rebels". Sanderson and I recently spoke about what makes people decide to speak up or stay silent. And we started our conversation by trying to understand why, for instance, as the summer wore on, support for Black lives started to wear thin.

CATHERINE SANDERSON: I'm hopeful - perhaps naively - but I'm hopeful that Mr. Floyd's death earlier this summer, in fact, marked a more lasting change. But I think it's also the case that people can get very galvanized around particular issues. And then as that urgency seems to fade, there's obviously been lots of competition over the last few weeks in terms of people's attention about coronavirus deaths, about the election and so on. And I think it'll be interesting to see whether the movement we saw in terms of attitudes about racial injustice - is that lasting, or is it temporary?

MOSLEY: Well, this election seems to be an interesting look into the decision to stand up to perceived wrongdoing. You have a number of Republicans saying they will cross party lines to vote for Biden, for instance. But we also have Trump supporters who stand behind him no matter what he does. What does this tell you about politics and our behavior as voters?

SANDERSON: So I've actually been very heartened by what I've seen in a number of cases. There are, of course, prominent Republicans - The Lincoln Project, sort of most tellingly - who have actually spoken out against President Trump. And to me, this is a real opportunity as a culture, as a society, to say, we're going to put country over party. Now, certainly, there are Republicans who are sticking strongly with Trump no matter what. I actually talk about - the psychology that leads people to stay obedient in difficult situations can also be used to help understand and overcome that tendency.

MOSLEY: Can you elaborate a little more on that? - because your research suggests that people may be more willing to go along with bad behavior if the example is set by someone in authority - for instance, like the president of the United States.

SANDERSON: Yes. And I think we're seeing that play out. So it's very clear that leaders of all sorts exert a tremendous influence. And when the president calls on violence in cities, when the president says, let's not wear a mask, that, in fact, is a very powerful influence on lots of people.

We also can see psychologically the slippery slope effect, that the challenge with President Trump is that even prior to his election in 2016, he was saying things that many people felt were problematic, including, in fact, many Republicans. And yet, they let it slide. And so the problem with the slippery slope effect psychologically is that to disavow his statements now, you also have to come to terms with your willingness to have supported many such statements in previous iterations. And that actually is very difficult psychologically.

MOSLEY: What is your suggestion for people who are part of a group who may not be aligned with that way of thinking, but they don't want to step outside of their group because they don't want to be ostracized from the group?

SANDERSON: So that's such a fabulous question because here's the thing. In many cases, people believe, oh, my goodness, I'm going to be ostracized if I speak up. But in reality, everybody or most people in their group are actually feeling exactly the same.

Many women and many people of color have confided in me something that happens regularly. They'll be at a meeting. They'll be in some group setting. And someone will say something offensive - racially or sexually offensive. And no one will say anything. And then afterwards, people will reach out privately and they'll say, I was so offended by that, or, I really thought that was inappropriate, or, I really had your back in my mind.

And so I'm really pushing people to have the courage - to have the moral courage to stand up when you see or hear something that isn't OK because in many cases, what you are doing is giving permission for other people to, in fact, support you because they, too, are feeling ashamed and afraid and worried about speaking up.

MOSLEY: I want to ask you about something else. How does a society come to a unifying consensus when there is no unifying tenet of what's right or wrong?

SANDERSON: So I think it's a really important question. And what I think is the most important is that people are actually understanding that right now, we all have a choice. I think one of the challenges historically with voting is that it seems like, well, you know, will my vote really make a difference - you know, this one small step? But if each individual person actually steps up and acts - whether that's voting in their community, whether that's donating money or signing a petition or joining a protest march - can actually create a massive shift in culture. And we've seen that historically - that major shifts in culture can and, in fact, do happen.

MOSLEY: Catherine Sanderson is the author of "Why We Act: Turning Bystanders Into Moral Rebels."

Catherine, thank you so much.

SANDERSON: Thank you for this opportunity to talk. Stay safe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.