Ethics Expert Answers Your Questions

"Primetime" used hidden cameras to examine how people react when faced with ethical dilemmas or sticky situations, like a woman abusing a man in public or someone who appeared drunk attempting to drive. We asked you to send us your comments and questions about ethics or etiquette. Carrie Keating, a psychology professor at Colgate University, answers some of them here.

Dan from Kingland, Calif., wrote, "My wife and I have a friend that is very verbally abusive toward her husband and children. She is constantly yelling and cursing at the children, particularly toward her 3-year-old daughter. We like the couple, but have an ethical dilemma with the way she treats her family. We can't be around her too long as we feel this will affect our 3-year-old daughter. What do we do, if anything, to be able to maintain a friendship at the same time?"

Keating: Either you or your wife can broach the subject with the woman (don't gang up on her). Choose a time and a place likely to feel "safe" (to reduce the likelihood of the woman getting defensive). Tell her that you value her friendship. Then tell her how her verbally abusive behavior makes you feel ("I feel upset when you curse at the kids," for example). It's hard to argue with someone else's feelings! Ask for her help in solving the dilemma.

Janet wrote, "My son suffered years of physical abuse at the hands of his now ex-wife in the presence of their three minor children. She was arrested and convicted of assault and battery twice and was put on probation both times. Why are the courts so much more tolerant of women abusers than they are of men? The justice system is totally biased! If my son had been the abuser, I am sure he would have done some time."

Keating: The "eyeglasses" of the legal system often refract behavior the way individuals do. The lens of gender stereotypes guides perceptions and judgments of aggressive behavior because it is most closely associated with masculinity. Controlled laboratory studies suggest that when a person acts in ways inconsistent with stereotypes, we "read" and remember the behavior differently than we do when the behavior is consistent with stereotypes. Thus, men's aggressive behavior "shouts" aggressiveness; women's aggressive behavior only "whispers" it.

Susan from Newburgh, N.Y., asked, "Isn't there a phenomenon that when a group witnesses a 'bad thing,' they all expect someone else to step in and help? This may explain why many people did not step in and help in the staged situations. This phenomenon came to light in the early 70s when Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in her New York City apartment entryway, screaming for help and nobody answered because everyone thought 'somebody else' would help."

Keating: Right! You are describing a well-known bystander effect -- the idea that feeling responsible for helping can be diminished if the responsibility can be shifted to others nearby. Other people are also used as information sources in situations where it is not crystal clear if an emergency is at hand. If others walk by, we are more likely to do so.

Ashley from Parkersburg, W.Va., wrote, "I just watched the 'Primetime: What Would You Do?' special where the couples are fighting. I was wondering if it would be wrong to physically step in and block the victim by putting your own hands on the attacker?"

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