In 2019, a video recorded in a London Underground spread quickly on the internet. It showed a man talking aggressively to a Jewish man and boy, uttering anti-Semitic abuse. Most passengers silently watched the scene unfold, but two stepped in to stop the offender. By addressing him directly, they effectively deflected his attention away from the targets of his abuse. Still, speaking up was not without risk, and both interveners were verbally threatened or attacked by the offender.

These interveners showed moral courage: They stood up against another person’s wrongdoing, in defense of their moral beliefs, and despite the risks. While moral courage is socially desirable, it is also rare. Why some individuals show moral courage and many others do not is thus far not well understood, as we know little about the psychological processes underlying it. Parts of the answer may lie in people’s emotional reactions to others’ wrongdoings. This is what my colleagues and I investigated in a recent research project.

Anger and Moral Courage

We focused our investigation on a specific emotion: anger. Anger is a typical response when we perceive something as unjust or harmful; in other words, anger is a central emotion behind our moral compass. Feeling angry, in turn, can motivate action to correct what is perceived as wrong. Together, this suggests that anger may play a pivotal role in moral courage.

Still, situations that afford moral courage are highly complex, which makes it likely that further emotions are at play. For example, intimidation or physical threats may trigger fear, the presence of victims could elicit feelings of empathy, or failure to intervene might lead to feelings of guilt. We thus investigated the role of anger alongside other potentially relevant emotions.

Researching moral courage is challenging for various reasons. Research has shown that simply asking individuals how they would react to others’ wrongdoings produces very different results than testing whether they actually do intervene. In particular, there seems to be a tendency for people to overestimate their intervention behavior when asked about it hypothetically. A related challenge is that if researchers want to study real behavior, they need to figure out a real way to do so that avoids actual risks for participants, for obvious ethical reasons.

Taking these aspects into account, we set up a study in which we could observe actual reactions against others’ wrongdoings. We invited participants to our laboratory to participate in a study, ostensibly on learning and emotions; this way, we could credibly ask about emotions during the study but not reveal our actual goals. While participants were seemingly waiting for the study to start, they were in a room with two experimenters and overheard how the two planned and then executed the embezzlement of money from the project fund.

Would participants intervene against this wrongdoing? We ensured that participants had various opportunities to do so, either by directly confronting the experimenters; later involving a fellow participant (who was, in actuality, a secret member of the research team); or reporting to a superior, the project leader.  

The room was equipped with video cameras, and we used video recordings to identify any form of intervention, ranging from hesitant questions concerning the embezzlement to taking the money from the conspiring experimenters. To estimate emotional reactions, we asked participants how they were feeling before and after the embezzlement took place.

A striking observation of our study was that few participants intervened in any way, only 27%, while the vast majority remained completely passive. In other words, roughly a quarter of our participants showed moral courage.

What did we learn about the role of emotions? Participants reacted to the observed wrongdoing with feeling anger and guilt, but not fear or empathy (given the nature of the situation, the lack of fear and empathy is not really surprising, as no one was being intimidating or visibly victimized). Importantly, the more an individual reported feeling  anger, the more likely they were to intervene. This means that from the intensity of anger reactions, we could predict who showed moral courage.

We gained other important insights, too. First, we wanted to know why some people reacted with anger to the wrongdoing and others did not. We expected that personality characteristics (which we had measured with self-report scales a few days earlier) may explain differences. Findings suggested anger reactions to the embezzlement were not due to whether a person is generally short-tempered, but rather by how much observing injustice done to others outrages them.

Second, we used our video recordings to know whether participants also expressed anger, for example by frowning, tightly pressing the lips, or speaking in an aggressive tone of voice. Interestingly, our results showed that those who reported to feel anger did not necessarily express it, and vice versa. Expressing anger was also less clearly linked to intervention than feeling anger. We concluded from this that some participants may have expressed anger strategically (rather than as a reflection of their feelings), either to strengthen their intervention or as a sole, subtler, sign of disapproval of the embezzlement without actually saying something about it. 

While anger is commonly labeled a negative emotion and seen as destructive, our study shows that it can play a crucial role in moral courage as a highly desirable behavior. As a practical conclusion, it seems important that we allow ourselves to feel anger in situations that may potentially constitute wrongdoings. Rather than suppressing it, anger may be an important source of information that provides us with the necessary boost to stand up for our moral beliefs and show courage.

For Further Reading

Haidt, J. (2003). The moral emotions. In Handbook of affective sciences (pp. 852–870). Oxford University Press.

Halmburger, A., Baumert, A., & Schmitt, M. (2016). Every day heroes – Determinants of moral courage. In S. T. Allison, G. R. Goethals, & R. M. Kramer (Eds.), Handbook of heroism and heroic leadership (pp. 165–184). Routledge.

Sasse, J., Halmburger, A., & Baumert, A. (2020). The functions of anger in moral courage—Insights from a behavioral study. Emotion.

Julia Sasse is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Max-Planck-Institute for Research on Collective Goods in Bonn, Germany. In her work, she aims to obtain a comprehensive understanding of the functions of emotions in moral courage by investigating their experience, expression, and perception.