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Who Will Show Moral Courage?

October 15, 2013

By Anna Baumert, Anna Halmburger, & Manfred Schmitt (University of Koblenz-Landau, Germany)

The news media is quick to report shocking stories of unresponsive bystanders who fail to act to prevent crimes, but what about the many heroic persons who take action to prevent the violation of moral values? Tales of apathetic bystanders are countered by stories from everyday life of people who spontaneously confront a thief, a bully, or a vandal despite risking own harm. This variance in reactions to witnessed norm violations raises the question: Who will intervene and show moral courage?

Some researchers, to answer this question, interview people asking about such personal characteristics as anxiety in social situations, empathy, feelings of responsibility for social issues, and self-assuredness when facing problems. In these studies, people are also asked in hypothetical scenarios whether they would intervene against the described norm violation (e.g. Chaurand & Brauer, 2008; Greitemeyer, Fischer, Kastenmüller, & Frey, 2006). As researchers of the University of Koblenz-Landau in Germany, we have questioned that the results of these studies can tell us about behavior in real situations when facing a perpetrator.

For this reason, we confronted our participants with a theft during a psychological study, ostensibly on learning and emotion, and observed their reactions (Baumert, Halmburger, & Schmitt, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2013). A week prior to the theft, participants responded to a personality questionnaire. Results revealed that neither the individual level of anxiety, empathy, feelings of responsibility, or self-assuredness predicted the reactions to the theft. Only one personal characteristic proved to be relevant in the theft situation: Persons who had reported to react with strong emotions when facing an injustice (persons high on justice sensitivity; Schmitt, Baumert, Gollwitzer, & Maes, Social Justice Research, 2010) were more likely to protest and stop the thief. Interestingly, this tendency was particularly pronounced for those persons who had claimed to have negative feelings in cases when they benefited from an injustice. We propose the interpretation that these persons react spontaneously when faced with a transgressor in order to prevent own feelings of guilt that might result when letting a crime happen.

In conclusion, for witnesses of crimes it does not matter whether they are generally anxious or rather feel self-assured, or whether they easily empathize with potential victims and feel responsible for other’s problems. These characteristics do not seem to hamper or to facilitate the spontaneous courageous intervention against the transgression. What really matters in a crime situation is whether the injustice that is committed is experienced as aversive by the witness. If the bystander is sensitive to injustice and thus emotionally aroused, this reaction will provide the fuel necessary to take action and stop the norm violation.

Finally, we wanted to know whether it was really necessary to confront our participants with an alleged theft in the laboratory or whether we could have found the same results by means of hypothetical scenarios. Therefore, we repeated our study with the only difference that the theft was not actually realized but described to the participants. The results were strikingly different. When responding to the theft scenario, the participants’ anxiety, empathy, feelings of social responsibility, and self-assuredness did matter, but their justice sensitivity did not predict their responses. This difference suggests that findings from scenario studies cannot be generalized for the understanding of real moral courage. Moreover, when comparing the studies, it resulted that participants in the scenario study clearly overestimated the likelihood of their moral courage. In this study, all participants indicated that they would intervene against the theft at least to some degree. By contrast, when the theft was actually realized, only 29% of the participants addressed the theft and protested.

The study results have important practical implications. First, for researchers it becomes clear that it is necessary not to take the easy route but to make the effort and observe real behavior when investigating moral courage. Second and most importantly, the finding that the individual justice sensitivity, and not other characteristics, is relevant for the behavior of bystander of norm violation can be employed for trainings of moral courage. Evidently, personal characteristics cannot easily be changed. However, first attempts have been made to sensitize persons for potential injustices in ambiguous situations. When a norm transgression is witnessed, the situation is seldom unambiguous but bystanders can interpret the situation in various ways. Fostering the sensitivity that potentially an injustice might be committed may be a key to enhance moral courage.

Author Information

BaumertAnna Baumert is an assistant professor for personality and assessment at the University of Koblenz-Landau in Germany. She investigates social information processing and its role in shaping individual differences in moral emotions and justice-related behavior. She currently receives funding for research projects on justice sensitivity and political trust.

HalmburgerAnna Halmburger is a phD student and research scientist in two projects on justice-related reactions toward norm violations and political trust. She investigates how moral emotions and moral motives influence retaliation-intentions and justice-related behavior.

SchmidtManfred Schmitt is full professor of psychology and teaches Personality and Psychological Assessment. His current research interests include emotion dispositions, individual differences in justice sensitivity, personality and information processing, nonlinear person x situation – interactions, and objective personality assessment.


Baumert, A., Halmburger, A., & Schmitt, M. (2013). Interventions against norm violations: Dispositional determinants of self-reported and real moral courage. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. DOI: 10.1177/0146167213490032.

Chaurand, N. & Brauer, M. (2008). What determines social control? People’s reactions to counternormative behaviors in urban environments. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38, 1689-1715.

Greitemeyer, T., Fischer, P., Kastenmüller, A., & Frey, D. (2006). Civil courage and helping behaviour: Differences and similarities. European Psychologist, 11, 90-98.

Schmitt, M., Baumert, A., Gollwitzer, M., & Maes, J. (2010). The Justice Sensitivity Inventory: Factorial validity, location in the personality facet space, demographic pattern, and normative data. Social Justice Research, 23, 211-238.

Image Credit: Used with permission of Anna Baumert; all rights reserved.

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