Photo by Steve Halama

An upstander is a person who doesn’t merely stand by, but stands up to cruelty, oppression, and injustice wherever it occurs. Berkley Lab defines an upstander as “someone with integrity and courage who recognizes when something is wrong, acts to make it right, and hopefully prevents it from happening again.” This willingness to intervene when witnessing transgressions against others despite potential costs to oneself has also been called moral courage.

Being an upstander requires us to be mindful and observant, willing to bear witness to the suffering of others, and open to taking wise and compassionate action to help reduce that suffering. It involves an attitude of looking out for one another and taking an active role in co-creating a more just world.

Martha and Waitstill Sharps were American upstanders who left their comfortable Massachusetts home and traveled to Europe on the verge of World War II in order to smuggle people out of Nazi occupied territories and deliver powdered milk to the infants of refugees in besieged areas. They were separated from their own families and risked their lives in order to do their part in righting a wrong.

One can only manage a miracle every so often. But a series of miracles can happen when many people become concerned and are willing to act at the right time. – Martha Sharps

The Sharps were exceptional in their response to the horror that was unfolding in the 1930s. It’s not easy to be an upstander, so specialized training has been developed to make this sort of prosocial behavior more likely. It has been used in workplaces to create a culture of psychological safety for greater innovation, on college campuses in order to reduce sexual assault, and in schools to discourage bullying. Being an upstander takes a clear perspective, compassion, and the courage to swim against a prevailing stream of self-dealing and amorality. Interestingly. researchers have discovered that the felt sense of anger seems to be an important predictor of intervention in observed injustice, while anger expression is only loosely associated.

While we’d probably like to think of ourselves as potential upstanders, most of us find reasons to stand by when we see wrongdoing unfolding. There are a number of reasons for this, including:

  • The bystander effect: a form of diffusion of responsibility in which people will observe rather than offering assistance to someone in crisis when others are around. Diffusion of responsibility has been used as a defense for war criminals who say they were just following orders.
  • Habituation causes us to get used to harmful actions that start small and gradually increase or conditions that slowly deteriorate.

Worse yet, we sometimes react by blaming or attacking those who call out injustice or the people who are being treated unfairly. This is because we can find temporary relief when we create a scapegoat upon which we can displace our feelings of discomfort and dissonance. It’s a primitive habit. Dogs barking at something from behind a fence will snap at each other in their frustration.

The research on bullying has taught us a lot about what motivates “power over” behavior. Evidence indicates it’s reinforced – dominating, terrorizing, or humiliating others can be entertaining for some and socially rewarding in our mainstream culture of competition and rugged individualism. Behaviorism tells us if reinforcement is withdrawn, the behavior will decrease. Standing up to harmful behavior when we see it limits it’s rewards for the perpetrator. And if we instead reinforce prosocial and “power with” behaviors, they will increase.

We can improve the likelihood that we will stand up to cruelty, exploitation and injustice by being mindful, taking better care of ourselves, and cultivating more mature ways of being and relating. Research shows that attention to self care and the cultivation of beneficial qualities makes it more likely that we will assist others. Ideally the more primitive strategies we rely upon in childhood can be replaced with experience over time by more sophisticated ways of thinking and acting. Here are some examples:

Immature Strategies Mature Strategies
Reactivity, impulsivity, striking out, attacking, speaking recklessly, knee-jerk reactions, interrupting, emotional escalation, acting out Patience, emotional intelligence, conscientiousness, thoughtfulness, consideration, self-regulation
Blaming, defensiveness, projection, making excuses, denial, dissimulation, turning things around Taking ownership, honesty with self and others, humility
Passive aggression, procrastination Being proactive, having a sense of agency, being intrinsically motivated, empowerment, assertiveness
Self-centeredness, being unable to see beyond the self Generosity, compassion, altruism, empathy, sense of humor
Character assassination, name-calling, bullying, pushing others’ boundaries, taking without permission, cruelty Acting out of love/abundance, unity/goodwill with others, respectfulness, decency, civility
Lack of self-awareness or self-reflection, behavior-values disconnect Self-awareness, connection with values, critical thinking
Distraction, piling on, diversion Presence, focus, sense of purpose
Avoidance, repression, regression, helplessness, reaction formation, “ghosting”, somatization, falling into despair Facing fears, growth mindset, stepping outside comfort zone, resourcing self, thinking flexibly

The good news is that being an upstander is both intrinsically rewarding and contagious. Studies suggest becoming an upstander to bullying has positive impacts for youth, such as higher academic achievement, self-esteem, and future optimism. Researchers have also discovered that people who have witnessed helping behavior are more likely to help others. Most of all, standing up to harmful behavior broadcasts a message about what is right and what is wrong, contributing to a culture of caring, kindness and belonging.

May I be a guard for those who need protection
A guide for those on the path
A boat, a raft, a bridge for those who wish to cross the flood
May I be a lamp in the darkness
A resting place for the weary
A healing medicine for all who are sick
A vase of plenty, a tree of miracles
And for the boundless multitudes of living beings
May I bring sustenance and awakening
Enduring like the earth and sky
Until all beings are freed from sorrow
And all are awakened.

– Shantideva, Bodhisattva Prayer for Humanity

Resources

Darley JM, Latané B. Bystander Intervention in Emergencies: Diffusion of Responsibility. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1968;8(4):377-383.

Evans, C et al. (2019). Cumulative Bullying Experiences, Adolescent Behavioral and Mental Health, and Academic Achievement: An Integrative Model of Perpetration, Victimization, and Bystander Behavior. Journal of Child and Family Studies. 27. 1-14.

Hart, JE et. al. (2019) Promoting upstander behavior to address bullying in schools. Middle School Journal, 50:1, 6-11

Hortensius R, de Gelder B. From Empathy to Apathy: The Bystander Effect Revisited. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2018 Aug;27(4):249-256.

Raihani NJ, Bshary R. Why humans might help strangers. Front Behav Neurosci. 2015;9:39. Published 2015 Feb 20.

Sasse, J, Halmburger, A, & Baumert, A (2020). The functions of anger in moral courage—Insights from a behavioral study. Emotion, Nov 30.

Schweinfurth MK, Call J. (2019). Reciprocity: Different behavioural strategies, cognitive mechanisms and psychological processesLearn Behav.;47(4):284‐301.

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