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Published: 08 July 2015

Taking the moral high ground drives motivation to intervene in public situations finds new study

In a new study, published today in the Journal of Politeness Research, academics from the University of Surrey and 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 also 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 behaviour.

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 (full examples in the Notes to Editors) the abuser and the victim, both of whom are in a close relationship, 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, the person intervenes as they perceive the morality of the situation to be more important than being polite.  For example, in one of the scenarios, the lady intervening is told to stay out of the couple’s private business, but she still persists with her objection.

"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 or worse,” said Dr Rosina Márquez-Reiter from the University of Surrey.

“The person intervening sees the alleged violation as part of the public's business despite the fact that the action taking place is essentially part of the couples’ and individuals’ private lives.  Further research is needed to understand the relationship between morality and politeness in a wider range of communicative contexts and establish its transcultural validity,” added Professor Daniel Kadar from the University of Huddersfield.