Book Reviews / Workplace, 19 Feb 24
Review by Rachael McGuigan, Communications Specialist
The bystander effect: The psychology of courage and how to be brave
Sanderson, C. A. (2021). Willam Collins
Psychologist Catherine Sanderson uses real-life examples, neuroscience and the latest psychological studies to explain why we might be good at recognising bad behaviour but bad at taking action against it

How many of us have been caught in a situation where we know something is wrong but don’t stand up to say or do something about it? In The Bystander Effect, pioneering psychologist Catherine Sanderson explains why good people often do nothing in situations where they should. Backed up by recent social psychology studies and surveys, this book explores how our environment, skills and brains help us determine whether to speak up or stand by when witnessing bad behaviour. 

The author has used her career to research the influence of social norms and the unwritten rules that shape our behaviour. Her findings have shown that when confronted with the choice to intervene in a bad situation, people lack a sense of personal responsibility, are often confused about what’s happening, misperceive social norms, and fear consequences. While experiments can measure people’s behaviour, with the help of emerging breakthroughs in neuroscience, researchers can now show how specific experiences, scenarios and pressures play out in the brain. 

The book aims to help people understand the psychological factors contributing to our natural tendency to stay silent in the face of bad behaviour and how that silence enables the same unhelpful action to continue. Interestingly, we often think we’re braver than we are. Most of us consider we’ll do the right thing. Still, in reality, we often don’t take action due to fear, recrimination or thinking someone else will step up. 

Sanderson breaks the book into three sections: why good people are silent, how inaction plays out in real-life situations, and strategies to grow our courage and stand up when needed. I like how this topic relates to everyone and can help educate all sections of society—from bullying in the schoolyard, fraudulent activity in organisations, hazing at university, and corruption in government departments—all of us can learn how to reset our moral compass.  

Disclaimer: Please note these reviews are not intended as endorsements or recommendations from the Mental Health Foundation. This feature introduces resources that may be useful for individuals with an interest in bullying prevention, mental health and wellbeing topics.

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