Asking Others to Behave Better

Asking others to behave better might be just a matter of a polite request that is complied with, but sometimes complications ensue.

Not all interventions to ask someone to change their behaviour will be welcome.  It is difficult to determine whether to intervene and how to do so.  The US National Domestic Violence Hotline publishes Tips for Intervening If You Witness Domestic Violence, for example, mentions possible precautions:

“If you witness domestic violence in public, it’s important to take into account your own safety as well as the survivor’s. There is safety in numbers, so gathering a group of people to stand nearby and either verbally or physically intervene is one option. Contacting the authorities is another option.”

As a further illustration of some of the complexities of asking others to behave better, consider an adult who attempts to stop one child from bullying another.  Intervention could be regarded as socially responsible, irrespective of whether the adult and the children share the same system of beliefs, but it is not as simple as that:

●  Firstly, the adults may be putting themselves at risk: if not from the children themselves, from the children’s relatives or from gang members. ‘Passing by on the other side of the road’ and ‘minding one’s own business’ will often seem safer – but that will not help the child who is being bullied and nor will it help to educate the bullies about the unacceptability of their behaviour.

●  Secondly, in the bullying example, it is not always easy to work out whether what is taking place is actually bullying rather than, say, ‘horseplay’ that the ‘victim’ is quite prepared to go along with. Intervention in such cases would be seen as officiousness rather than help.  This risk can be reduced by asking the ‘victim’ whether help would be welcome.

●  It may be tempting to suggest that the law might offer a solution, but moral pressure can change behaviour more immediately than a law which, in the case of bullying, could only be invoked after it had taken place, and then only if the circumstances were right for a successful prosecution. A bully’s peer group, by contrast, can immediately express distaste for the bad behaviour – which is a much more effective and timely deterrent.

Clearly it is preferable (where circumstances permit) that such intervention comes from within the bully’s peer group or his or her own family: there is less room for doubt about the right of the person to intervene, there is less personal risk attached to the intervention and it is likely to have a more effective educational impact on the bully because the approval of the intervener will matter more to him or her.

The widespread and immediate availability of moral influence makes it one of the strongest mechanisms for people to govern each other’s behaviour but, as this example has shown, its use is not straightforward.  Its impact is strongest within close-knit groups.  Between strangers it is advisable to be cautious about how to intervene.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/4431.htm