We all know that one annoying situation — someone’s music is too loud on the bus, someone’s littering, or just being an overall pain to everybody around. Most people just ignore the situation or just feel like they shouldn’t intervene. But every once in a while, someone does rise up and confront the situation. In a new study, researchers set out to map the traits of such people who challenge social injustice.

Image credits: William Franklin / Flickr.

Alexandrina Moisuc and her colleagues asked 1,100 volunteers from Austria and France to go through a series of hypothetical scenarios involving anti-social behavior such as someone tearing up posters, spitting on the pavement, or throwing used batteries into a flower pot in a shared yard — inflammatory, annoying, but fairly common scenarios. Participants’ options ranged from total inaction to sighing, to addressing the transgressor, mildly or aggressively. They were also asked to rate how morally outraged they felt about the incident, with stronger feelings correlating with a stronger desire to intervene. Participants were also asked to evaluate themselves, assessing their own personality traits.

Researchers were expecting the intervener profile to be the “Bitter Complainer” — a person with low self-esteem who uses hostility towards others to boost their own self-esteem. However, Moisuc found that these “bitter” components (traits associated with lashing out, such as aggressiveness, poor emotional regulation), had no relationship with stand up; they were actually slightly negatively correlated.

Instead, the factors associated with fighting social injustice were (thankfully) confidence, persistence, being good at regulating emotions, valuing altruism and being comfortable expressing opinions. People more inclined to rise up also tended to be more extrovert.

“So it wasn’t the bitter complainer, but rather the “Well-adjusted Leader” that would step in. Researchers write in the paper: Participants’ self‐reported tendency to confront perpetrators correlated positively with altruism, extraversion, social responsibility, acceptance by peers, independent self‐construal, emotion regulation, persistence, self‐directedness, age, occupation, and monthly salary, but not with aggressiveness or low self‐esteem. Individuals who confront prejudice also speak up against other immoral and uncivil behaviours.”

Of course, there are several limitations to the study. For starters, people only self-evaluated traits, which always brings a bit of uncertainty. In particular, in this case, people might react differently to their expectations, when put on the spot. Also, participants were young Europeans, the findings might not carry on for all cultures.

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However, results are consistent with previous findings, and importantly, they raise an important question. We all want to be the hero of our life, we all want to be the good guy — but few of us really like to speak out when the situation calls for it.

Journal Reference: Alexandrina Moisuc Markus Brauer Anabel Fonseca Nadine Chaurand Tobias Greitemeyer. Individual differences in social control: Who ‘speaks up’ when witnessing uncivil, discriminatory, and immoral behaviours?. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjso.12246

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