Picture this: You’re crammed into a humid, overcrowded New York City subway car, lurching along the tracks with no air conditioning.
Suddenly, the guy three seats away from you grabs a standing rider’s behind, and squeezes.
She yelps and takes a few steps away, and is visibly shaken—but no one else in the car seems to have noticed what just happened. If they have, they’re doing a studious job of ignoring it.
Do you stay quiet or speak up?
Or, try this scenario: You’ve just found out that one of your work colleagues—known to be a protégé of your boss—has been siphoning company funds for her own use. But you’re not sure how to bring it up with the boss, fearing you might get labeled a narc.
Do you say something, or decide to keep mum?
A lot of us have a clear mental image of the kind of person who takes action in situations like these. Forceful, probably. Someone used to taking charge. Someone with a strong moral compass. Hesitant? Shy and retiring? Never.
But research on who actually intervenes at high-stakes moments upends these assumptions—and even hints that internalizing them can mean missing out on prime chances to help.
It’s true that passive bystanders often outnumber active ones. But studies show that people who take a chance and act aren’t dramatically different, personality-wise, from the rest of the population.
They aren’t necessarily more outgoing or daring than the average personality type. Psychologists Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo like to talk about “the banality of heroism,” arguing that almost everyone is capable of selfless intervention.
Active bystanders do tend to have certain important qualities, but it doesn’t just boil down to a person’s innate nature. Many of these qualities can be taught.
To adopt these qualities, a person first needs specific training or preparation that allows them to feel confident at the moment action is called for. And second, they need the presence of mind to choose a response in line with their value system, which views humans as deserving of help no matter their background or who they are.
Intervention dress rehearsal
What consistently sets interveners apart from sideline-standers is what researchers call “self-efficacy:” that is, they trust their ability to take constructive action in a given situation. That kind of confidence can come from intervening in similar situations in the past, but it can also arise through deliberate training and practice.
“While we cannot realistically duplicate successful intervention experiences,” one University of Houston study concludes, “efforts to provide opportunities for practice in role-play scenarios might be worthwhile.”
To that end, Palo Alto, Ca. psychologist Lynne Henderson and consultant Brooke Deterline have created a rehearsal-based approach to help clients develop the efficacy they need to speak up. Based on cognitive-behavioral principles, Henderson’s “social fitness training” model posits that any client—no matter how shy or withdrawn at the outset—can learn to assert themselves by role-playing different social encounters until they become second nature. It amounts to a kind of conversational exposure exercise. Henderson and Deterline soon realized they could use the social fitness training approach to prepare people to intervene in ethically fraught situations. When you consider talking to the boss about a colleague’s wrongdoing, a rush of stress chemicals like cortisol can wash over you, tempting you to stay silent.
But as Henderson’s clients enact practice versions of similar scenarios—perhaps speaking up to a boss, or confronting a predator—they start to get familiar enough with that stress-chemical rush, and accustomed enough to speaking up in spite of it, that they feel confident enough to intervene in real life despite their fear.
Through ongoing, deliberate practice, Henderson’s program and other similar ones equip participants with the tools they need to act in stressful situations, just as medical training equips doctors to help at the scene of a disaster. In post-training tests, social fitness training participants report feeling less anxious and fearful when it comes to asserting themselves than they did before. “Conducting ‘social flight simulations,’” one student reported after a workshop, “was one of the most significant experiences of my professional career.”
Courage on command
The power of social flight simulation programs is that they prepare you to summon assertiveness at will—particularly if it’s not part of your usual repertoire. If you’re a natural introvert, you might not picture yourself as someone capable of screaming “Stop!” so loudly that your voice echoes off the walls of a subway car.
But if you rehearsed that scenario, or a related one, ahead of time, you’d be more likely to feel bold enough to do something—even if immersing yourself in Anna Karenina is your default subway mode.
In addition to feeling equipped for the task at hand, most active interveners seem to have a wide circle of concern beyond close friends and family; yet another quality that can be cultivated. One recent study found that when people had experience socializing with members of different cultural groups, they were more likely to want to be active bystanders.
Other research suggests that this kind of broad concern for others can fuel a range of intervention efforts—whether they’re short-term ones like standing up to a workplace bully, or longer-term ones like restructuring a corrupt company or blowing the whistle on environmental polluters.
It’s natural to feel skittish about defending a person or a larger principle if you prefer to blend into the background.
But introverts can intervene as effectively as extroverts, they just need to learn how. Just as exercise can transform flabby limbs into powerful, well-muscled ones, targeted practice can transform anxious bystanders into people who take principled action without a flicker of hesitation.