Published: 08 July 2015

Taking moral high ground outweighs politeness in public conflicts

Academics from Surrey, together with the University of Huddersfield, have found that people are more likely to intervene in public conflicts, when they consider they are taking the moral high ground.

The team discovered that a person’s intervention is prompted by behaviour that violates what they consider to be socially acceptable and steps outside of what society constitutes as normal.

The researchers studied real-life situations in America where actors played out scenarios in front of members of the public and captured their responses. This included an abusive boyfriend, lesbian parents being verbally abused and a gay athlete who comes out to a group of close friends.

In all scenarios the abuser and the victim either start an argument, are approached by a hostile waiter or are picked on by their group of friends.

The researchers found that in these situations a person intervenes as they perceive the morality of the situation to be more important than being polite. For example, in one of the scenarios, a lady who becomes involved is told to stay out of the couple’s private business, but she still persists with her objection.

Dr Rosina Márquez-Reiter, from the School of English and Languages, said: “The findings clearly showed that outspokenness is triggered by what the intervener sees as the impermissible violation of the victim’s rights. These rights are so basic that the person intervenes despite the risk of seeming impolite in interfering in someone’s private affairs.”

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