What should you do when faced with a dilemma that compels you to act?
Intervene, mind your own business, get involved or walk on by?
"Primetime" hired actors and staged scenarios to gauge how people would react when confronted with situations that tested their basic instincts.
The staged situations ranged from rowdy kids in a restaurant, elder abuse and a gay-bashing taxi driver to a couple getting a little too affectionate in a public place.
Here's how experts suggest you handle some of these situations:
"Kids From Hell" in a Restaurant
You're settling in for a relaxing dinner at a restaurant, and you find yourself seated near a table with a couple of rowdy, out-of-control kids.
Do you ignore them? Talk to the parents? Scold the kids?
Colgate University psychology professor Carrie Keating suggested finding someone in charge of the kids and approaching that person.
Behave in a friendly, nonthreatening manner, and use a soft but firm tone when talking.
For example, look the person in the eye and say, "It looks like you are having a nice family dinner, but I wonder if your child could be asked to settle down. I'm having a hard time hearing what my friends are trying to say."
If you have to approach the child, Keating says, stoop down to the child's level, make direct eye contact and use a firm but nonemotional voice.
"It's now time to eat your meal" is more effective than "Isn't it time to eat your meal?" And then, Keating adds, just wait. Children can take a few seconds to comply. If you don't get compliance after two or three attempts, drop it.
But what if the children are completely out of control?
"Focus elsewhere. Ignore it. … Or vote with your feet and leave," says Richard Gelles, dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. "Trying to discipline other people's children is inappropriate and doesn't work, anyway."
It's something you hear about in the news, but no one expects to see it happen in front of them, especially in a public place.
An elderly man, verbally and physically abused by a caregiver in a park, cries out for relief.
Do you call 911? Confront the abuser? Hope for the best and walk away?
The experts agree: Do something. Anything.
"If you're uncomfortable, call police officers or get involved," Gelles says. "Go up to the person on the receiving end of the abuse and say, 'I'm uncomfortable with how you're being treated. … Can I help you?'"
If the victim responds, Gelles adds, follow his lead. If he's not capable of responding, turn to the caregiver. Tell the caregiver you're really uncomfortable with his or her behavior and ask for the name of the caregiver's employer.
The caregiver may not recognize that his or her behavior is abusive, Keating says. She suggests approaching the recipient of the abuse first.
"Smile and try to defuse the situation, or direct conversation toward the elderly person. Make the elderly person. … A person," she says.
"If you're not part of the solution, then you're part of the problem," Gelles says. "If you walk away from social injustice, you become part of the social injustice."
It's an awkward situation: You're in an unfamiliar town, and the cab driver you're relying on to get you to your destination goes off on a gay-bashing tirade.
Do you argue with him? Ask to be let out? Nod politely and tough it out?
"Punish him economically," Gelles says. "Tell him to pull over, then pay the fare. … But don't tip."
Keating agrees that the situation is tough.
"You're in the back of a cab, and to some degree, you've given over power to the man in the front seat."
But Keating also encourages people to step up in this situation.
"How would you feel if you let this guy go on? By not challenging him, it reinforces his views," she says.
Loud Cell Phone Users
At a restaurant, a stranger shouts into his cell phone and you can hear every word of the conversation. Do you change tables? Ask him to be quiet?
Gelles describes this as more of an etiquette violation and recommends ignoring the offender or leaving.
However, if it's really bothering you, he says it's OK to "ask him to tone it down."
Public Displays of Affection
You're dining with your significant other and out of the corner of your eye you notice a couple at the next table getting what you consider to be overly affectionate.
Do you change tables? Complain to the manager? Tell the couple to knock it off? Or do you relax and enjoy the show?
"You have to ignore it," says Gelles, who again recommended that people could influence these situations through economics.
"You change where you're sitting, but it's the manager's problem. The only way to get the manager's attention is economically. Say, 'I'm leaving. If you want to run a brothel, that's your business.'"
Keating says sometimes it's OK to intervene in this type of overt public display of affection, aka PDA.
"If the PDA was outside of what would normally be expected in a restaurant, and if it was affecting the enjoyment someone was having or was really distracting, certainly asking the couple to calm down would be appropriate."
But what if the man gets a call from his wife and he insists he's at the office even though he's clearly not?
"Be very slow to judge other people," Keating says. "There's always a story."
To Each His Own
In general, how we perceive ourselves influences whether or not we step up and step in, Keating says.
We decide to intervene because we are confident that we have the tools to make a difference; sometimes we identify with a person who needs help, and sometimes it's because we view a situation as a violation of social norms and wish to right it.
The overall message, Keating says, is that people must do their own calculations when it comes to deciding whether or not to intervene when confronted with an ethical dilemma.