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26: Being a tattle-tale

Today, we’re talking about being a tattle-tale.

Specifically, what responsibility (if any) does an individual have to share possibly damaging, yet important information with someone it affects?

Show notes and links:
Bystander Effect (Psychology Today)

Ohio v. Clark


Full episode text

I admit, I was a bit surprised when nearly every initial answer to this topic had to do with the idea of telling someone that their spouse may be having an affair.

Which is rather telling about two things — one, the hypothetical situation most people default to when thinking about possibly damaging yet important information. And two, the kind of information many people may think that they’ll come into contact with. But this question goes much deeper than a potential infidelity.

One of the quirks of social structures that are more individualistic is the idea that being a “tattle-tale” is somehow wrong — after all, getting into someone else’s business simply isn’t your place. Yet when it’s a piece of information that does impact others, a strong argument can be made that it is, in fact, exactly your place. The “bystander effect” shows the negative social impact of not speaking up — the more people standing around, the less likely anybody will step in when something truly bad is happening.

One way that many groups handle this difficult question is by creating mandatory reporting laws. In cases of physical, sexual, financial, or emotional abuse — or of direct and actionable threats on someone else’s life — there are groups of people required to share that information. In Ohio v. Clark, the 2015 Supreme Court case, this responsibility was reiterated in a rare 9-0 decision stating that evidence is not usually admissible in court could be used to prosecute abuse in that situation.

And yet, we again reach the question — if you are not legally required to do so, do you feel like you have the responsibility to share damaging information? Or is that just inviting drama?