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?"

Keating: Oh, that's risky. Although touch can be comforting, it can also be perceived as a threat. And individuals who display hostile aggression can be less than choosy about their target. Besides, threat gestures such as lowered brow stares and arms akimbo can be quite effective in conveying dominance while keeping you further out of harm's way.

Stephanie wrote, "I feel that this [show] is sending a mixed message regarding someone's safety. As we have been taught prior to this message, we were told never to get too close or get involved due to the person possibly carrying a knife or a gun.

"How do we determine that it is safe? Do we take the chance and follow our instincts, or do we feel apprehensive to get involved because of what we see in the news on a daily basis? There are innocent bystanders who are injured everyday. A person who has made up their mind that this is the day they are going to end it with themselves or with others will go to the extreme to make sure it happens."

Keating: You are right in that intervening IS risky business. Each person needs to do their own calculus before stepping up and stepping in for at least two reasons: (1) You need to think about your own safety and that of those around you and, (2) You need to be able to successfully pull off the intervention. Having a sound plan is essential in most cases.

Alex from San Diego, Calif., wrote, "Great show about ethics and good Samaritans. I'm an undergrad psychology major, and I have some further ideas that were unanswered in the show. What if the couples were at a low income neighborhood park -- how would that scenario impact the results? I hypothesize that more males would come to the aid of the female being physically abused, but then again, that's a personal hypothesis.

"Another idea: This is in regards to the people attempting to drive under the influence of alcohol. I was surprised that people hesitated a bit to assist the actor who was not as nicely dressed as the first impersonator. Now, what if the actors were in the same part of town but with an older model car? Would people still be hesitant to assist because of the way a person is dressed and also driving an older car?"

Keating: Interesting possibilities, Alex. Why do you think more males would assist the female victim? Do social class differences make it more honorable or more advantageous for men to intervene when a woman is being abused? In some cultures (indeed, in some parts of our country) male abusers are less harshly judged -- these are so-called "honor" cultures.

You may be right about the older model car. It seems that people responded more quickly to the drunk who looked and seemed like them.

Angelica from Hudson, N.H., wrote, "I have a supervisor who seems to be coming in to work after having something to drink. Almost everyone I work with has noticed it. Sometimes it will just be her breath stinking and other times her speech is slurred and her walk is stumbly. There have been times when she is so bad, I don't know what to do. I have felt like asking her about it but don't want to get in trouble for it. I know that our superiors also know what is going on but don't say anything. I am really scared that something can happen to her or someone. What can I do?"

Keating: You need to think about what your goal is: Are you trying to help this supervisor? Save her job? Save your job?

If you want to address the situation while saving your job, you and/or your co-workers should approach the human resources manager or a superior about the problem. Superiors sometimes need a "push" in order to act on problems. Your company's health insurance plan may provide treatment options for your supervisor.

If you are primarily concerned about the supervisor's immediate behavior, then you and/or your co-workers could approach her directly. This move, however, leaves you vulnerable to losing your job.

If you and your co-workers are compelled by multiple goals, consult a drug and alcohol treatment professional in your local area for advice and options. Presenting a clear and doable action plan to your supervisor might make all the difference in her life. YOU are not necessarily the best person to present the plan, however.

Heather from Sacramento, Calif., wrote, "I just watched the show about our basic instincts. It was a powerful show that caused me to look deep inside and really ask myself what I would do in those situations. Too often I found myself saying I wouldn't step in, not because I didn't think I should, but because I didn't want to make a bigger deal out of the situation, and also because I wasn't sure what to say in those situations if I would have, in fact, stepped in.

"I learned that as a citizen on this Earth that we call home, it is my duty and responsibility to step in and take action in these situations. Even if I may not know exactly what to do, doing something -- anything -- would be better than doing nothing at all. What would you do if you were in a grocery store and a woman began yelling at her children and verbally scorning them. What would you recommend to do?"

Keating: This is a tough situation. You'd like to improve the parenting skills of the abusive woman -- not very doable in the time and space of grocery shopping! Best you could do here is short-circuit her behavior using distraction (e.g., move in close with a big smile and ask if she knows where the pickles are!) and counteract the negativity directed toward her children by complimenting them (e.g., address them directly and comment about how they seem like nice children).

A viewer from Kennesaw, Ga., wrote, "You missed an important point on your show about drinking and driving. What about restaurants and bars that serve four, five, six, seven, eight-plus drinks to one person in a short span of time? If we wanted to stop drinking and driving impaired, it would happen. Cars could be equipped with ignition locks. There could be a 'citizen' hotline where we could report to the Department of Treasury when we are aware of bars serving large numbers of drinks to an individual.

"Bars could require individuals drinking more than four drinks to give up their keys and take a breath test before getting the keys back. Lots of easy, no cost, simple things that society could do to stop drinking and driving.

"Bars could also be taxed to help with enforcement. The more I investigate this issue, the more bars I become aware of that are serving lots of drinks to people already drunk and the bartenders know it! Where are the ethics of those bartenders? I know the drinkers should not be drinking that many, but bartenders are our first line of defense against drinkers whose judgment becomes impaired."

Keating: You have several interesting ideas here -- and you make the big picture point, too: Tolerance for heavy drinking is partly a sociocultural phenomenon. At the same time, many people would argue that the first line of defense against drinking too much is the individual drinker. And it comes full circle, doesn't it? The society has to train those individual drinkers just right!

Lee from Southampton, N.Y., wrote, "The action between the two couples where the men were the aggressors, it was clear the women were trying to defend themselves and appeared they wanted to get away. The women were making eye contact with the aggressors as they were using their arms in defense. The man who was beat upon by the woman appeared patronizing. He was not making eye contact nor attempting to defend himself. He ignored the woman. He stayed focused on his newspaper.

"Being a male, I would have had no problem intervening with the two couples where the males were the aggressors. If needed, I would have no problem getting physical with the men. The other couple would cause me to hesitate, because I believe women are a lot more violent than our culture portrays. I would hesitate becoming physical against a woman. If the man in this couple appeared to be threatened by the woman's violence, I probably would have made some kind of contact. But, as it was portrayed in the segment, probably not. I might have made a comment about disturbing the peace with her yelling."

Keating: So here is the experiment both you and I want to do: IF the man and woman display EXACTLY the same aggressive behavior toward the other-sex victim who also behaves in EXACTLY the same way, right down to the violence of each shake, the pitch of each yell and the fear expression on each victim's face, would bystanders react the same way in each instance?