Ethical Dilemma: What Would You Do?

What would you do if you saw a young boy being berated by his baby sitter? The baby sitter doesn't raise a finger, but her words are degrading and harmful to the boy.

You don't know the whole story, and you're not directly involved. What would you do? Intervene? Or mind your own business?

ABC News was curious about this ethical dilemma, and hired two professional actors to play out the scene and examine at what people would do. Would it be possible to predict who will act -- and who won't?

On a sunny day in September, the woman, Wynn Everett, and the boy, Jake Cherry, aged 8, went to a picnic area near a playground and acted out the scenario they had rehearsed.

Situational Factors

When Wynn began to berate Jake, it was clear that intervening wouldn't be an easy decision.

One man within earshot kept reading his newspaper, and others walked right by. ABC News' hidden cameras showed that some women passing by appeared to be disturbed by the abuse, but they kept walking.

One group of women watched for more than eight minutes -- apparently shocked by the abuse and unsure of what to do.

Finally, one of them spoke up. "Do you think that's helping? It's verbal abuse," she said. "You're abusing this kid."

When she was finally notified it was an experiment, Krista Ciarletta, who has two daughters aged 5 and 2, said she had felt she needed to do something.

"It was disturbing to watch that. And I'm sorry I even let it go on as long as I did," she told ABC News' John Quiñones.

Later, Carrie Keating, a professor of psychology at Colgate University, watched a videotape of the experiment.

Situational factors have a major impact on helping behavior, she said. "How empowered we feel makes a difference. How many people are in the area makes a difference. Whether it's a sunny day."

But what about people who didn't act? Virginia Long, a grandmother, said she felt uncomfortable with Wynn's behavior, "but it's hard to step in, too."

Erin Flynn, a mother of twins, said she was afraid. "I didn't know," she said, "if she had somebody else with her, a husband or somebody that was going to come over and potentially hurt me or my children."

A Different Approach

Elise Campbell is another person who stopped Wynn from berating Jake. But unlike Ciarletta, she began: "You're breaking my heart talking to him like that. I know it's not my business."

Campbell, a mother of a young daughter, just over a year old, went on to sympathize with Wynn. She told her, "I completely understand your frustration -- even with somebody this young, I understand how frustrated you are but there are just other ways to talk to him."

Later, when Keating watched a videotape of this incident, she praised Campbell's approach. "She worked very hard to bring the baby sitter into the sisterhood of mothers there -- into the 'we-ness,' " Keating said.

Campbell later admitted she was initially afraid of Wynn's reaction. But she said she ultimately decided to act because she felt confident in doing so. She is a schoolteacher, and, she said, "I know how kids feel, I know how kids work. And I knew it was wrong."

"Competency makes all the difference," Keating said. Some people also get a "helper's high," she said -- people literally get a rush out of helping, and you can see it in their faces.


But that's not the only reason. Personal experience can also compel someone to act.

That's the case with Sutton Smith, the mother of a 2-year-old daughter, and a doctoral divinity student.

Like the others, she also hesitated before acting, partially out of fear. "I was shaking physically when I did it, and my voice was quavering. It's not something that's easy for me to do," she said.

But she says she's still haunted by something that happened when she was in college: She saw a man physically abusing a woman, and did nothing.

"I saw it and I walked away. And I didn't want that ever to happen again," she said.

The Male Perspective

Given Campbell, Sutton and Ciarletta -- are women the only ones to speak up when they see this kind of abuse?

Most of the men in ABC News' experiment just kept walking when they passed Wynn verbally abusing Jake. Keating said women generally relate better to the baby sitter's predicament and behavior than men do.

But what if men were a captive audience -- what if they couldn't just walk by? Wynn and Jake took their scenario to a nearby golf course and staged it at the first hole, where a dozen men were waiting to tee off.

The golfers looked, smiled uneasily, whispered, practiced their swings -- but did nothing as the tirade went on and on. Watching them on videotape, Keating noticed none of them looked at the woman or each other.

"It was almost as if they didn't want to know that this was a serious emergency situation," she said. "If everyone else around you is not doing anything, you figure, it's really not that big a problem."

Psychologists call this failure to act in a group "diffusion of responsibility." It means passing the buck.

Asked why he did nothing, one said, "Well, nobody else was saying anything." Another said, "Management was out here already. I just assumed they would get involved."

Have the Courage

ABC News cameras witnessed one man who did step in. Like Campbell's approach, his was also novel.

Instead of attacking Wynn, Ed Bogosian distracted her from her tirade by talking to Jake. He spent five minutes talking Wynn down, and asking Jake innocuous questions like "Do you like the park?"

Eventually, he reached a comfort level where he could tell Wynn, "Those are rough words. You know what I mean? You wouldn't like that if you were 9 or 7."

Bogosian, a grandfather and social worker, later told ABC News: "I knew that something had to be done. And if they didn't have the courage to do it and they didn't have the responsibility in their hearts to do it, then I would do it."

Keating agrees that bystanders should take action in such situations -- even if they don't have the finesse that Bogosian does. Bystanders can always call 911, and if they're confident and comfortable doing it, they could intervene.

If you know how, getting involved can make all the difference. "Don't count on others to intervene," she said. "Take it on yourself. Think about an action plan."