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Who Will Bell the Cat?

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King Arthur: Noble knights of the Round Table, ever since the accursed Black Knight captured our Singing Sword, evil times have befallen us. One of ye knights must recover the Singing Sword...
Sir Osis of Liver: The Black Knight has a fire-breathing dragon!
Sir Loin of Beef: But-but-but... but the Black Knight is invincib-b-ble!
King Arthur: Odds bodkins! Hath the knights of the Round Table turned chicken?
[Clucking sounds and feathers flying]

A group agrees that an action would lead to a very desirable result. The group puts their heads together and creates The Plan, and it would all come up roses for them if it was carried out to completion. There's some substantial risk involved, to be sure. But the rewards are so great and/or necessary that they'd be fools not to take this opportunity to get what they want.

It's all well and good... until they realize that someone has to actually put this dangerous plan into motion. So, who's going to do it? Cue the awkward silence.

This can range from the realization that The Plan is a Senseless Sacrifice that will fail and so not achieve the end, to The Hero or The Leader refusing to harm the Reluctant Monster and putting it on the Dirty Coward to do it himself, at which point the coward melts off. It usually has to be one person who does it, sticking at the selection point, but being endangered en masse is also possible. Of course, in some shows, the Butt-Monkey always gets this kind of job. This is also a common issue for The Bait. Another common variant is when the hero, faced with a crowd of people who mean him/her harm or death, points out or demonstrates that he/she isn't going to go down quietly and that while they might eventually prevail, several of them are going to be dead or seriously hurt by the end of it — leading to the would-be attackers realising that none of them really want to risk ending up in the "dead or seriously hurt" category.

Compare And Then What? and Sparing Them the Dirty Work. NIMBY is a mundane version of this trope for large infrastructure projects that would benefit the whole area but no one wants to shoulder the localized cost of being near it. Could result in a Got Volunteered situation when someone in charge forces someone in the group to do the task. Contrast Just Eat Gilligan, where a simple action which would resolve the plot is not carried out because no one thinks of it. Also contrast More Hero than Thou, Least Is First (a lowest-status character steps forward first, shaming the higher-status ones into supporting a course of action), Someone Has to Die. Original Position Fallacy is a related trope where the mouse who agrees that the cat should be belled likes the idea because he assumes he won't be the one who has to do it.

See also Victory Through Intimidation, for situations where your side could clearly win a fight but nobody dares make the first move lest they be targeted and taken down by the enemy before he's overwhelmed.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In As the Gods Will, the second game involves shooting a bell through a hoop on a lucky cat's collar, wearing mice costumes.
  • Hunter × Hunter: During the Greed Island arc, an allied group of players is tricked by a villain who plants time-bombs on all of them and demands all of their collected cards in exchange for disarming them. They consider ganging up on him and forcing him to disable the bombs, but quickly realise that he'd be able to kill at least a few of them in the struggle and none of them are willing to take that chance — that none of them are willing to risk their lives was the main reason they banded together to begin with.
  • Legend of the Galactic Heroes: A variation during the arc featuring the Civil War in the Galactic Empire. The nobles who revolted against the establishment (effectively led by one of the dual protagonists, Reinhard von Lohengramm, supporting the regent to a juvenile Emperor during a Succession Crisis) consider luring Reinhard's forces to their space fortress, and then sending another fleet to the lightly defended Imperial homeworld to take custody of the Emperor, declare Reinhard as a traitor, and win the war. The plan is swiftly abandoned as soon as someone asks who would command the second fleet; since the nobles (and the admiral who was convinced to command their forces) realize that none of them could trust any of the others to take the glory without stabbing the rest of them in the back. Of course, Reinhard was able to leave the Imperial homeworld undefended because he had predicted this outcome.

    Asian Animation 
  • Bread Barbershop: The trope-naming fable is referenced in "Cat Cupcakes", where the queen asks her servants to come up with a plan to get rid of the rat infestation in Bakery Town. One of them suggests putting a bell on the mice and is told to do it himself, but doesn't come back; the second one suggests luring cats into Bakery Town to scare them off and is told to get them himself, only to not come back either; and the third one suggests having Bread style everyone's frosting into the shape of cats.

    Comic Books 
  • When the Fantastic Four testified before Congress about the Super Registration Act, Johnny said he'd like to see someone registering Doctor Doom — from a suitable distance, like a few countries away.
  • Fat Freddy's Cat: When asked "Who will bell the cat?" a young female mouse volunteers: unfortunately she mis-hears the request as "BALL the cat"; with consequences best not imagined.

    Fan Works 
  • Danganronpa: Komm Susser Tod: Chapter 4, aptly titled "The Mice in Council", heavily discusses the scenario — the survivors conclude that killing the increasingly megalomaniacal and unapologetic murderer Iori Jabami would be a good idea, but cannot decide who will do the deed and thus have to confront execution at Monokuma's hands.
  • In Lightning Lord a group of Death Eaters decide to kidnap Harry from the Quidditch World Cup and resurrect Voldemort. Nearly everyone involved quickly volunteers to do anything other than the actual kidnapping.
  • With This Ring: Mammon mentions to Paul that he once considered empowering a demonic champion to kill sinners before they have a chance to repent. But although it would have paid off well for hell as a whole, his own share of that wouldn't have recouped his investment, so he didn't.
    "And now I.. see that that is the problem with the whole system." His shoulders droop a little. "Huh."

    Films — Animation 
  • In An American Tail, all the mice at the rallynote  agree that the cats must go, but when Gussie asks how to go about it, everyone goes mum. Then Fievel tells her about the Giant Mouse of Minsk.
  • In Cinderella, the mice decide to draw their tails to decide who will distract Lucifer while the others get breakfast. Jaq ends up drawing his own tail.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Played for laughs in Braveheart. The Elder Campbell is wounded by an arrow in battle, so after the fight ends the arrow needs to be removed and the wound cauterized to try to prevent infection. However, nobody wants to be the one to stick a red hot poker into the open wound of the elderly Boisterous Bruiser. This results in several people passing the poker onto someone else so that person can be the one to do it, while they declare that they'll help in holding Campbell down. By the time they get some poor sap to be the one to apply the poker, there are almost half a dozen people holding Campbell down. Sure enough, the very moment Campbell is released after the wound is cauterized, the first thing he does is hit the guy with the poker, despite the poor guy frantically apologizing.
  • The Dark Knight: This trope playing out is ultimately how the Joker's endgame social experiment fails: Joker has rigged up two ferries, one full of civilians, one full of prisoners, with explosives, while providing the passengers with the detonator to the other ferry, and the threat that if both ferries are still intact after a time limit, both will be blown up. On the "civilian" ferry, it's played straight: even after everyone votes in favor of detonating the other boat, nobody is willing to actually be the one who pushes the button, and even the one guy who declares that he'll do it ultimately finds himself unable to go through with it. On the "prison" ferry, there's an inversion: one prisoner steps forward with a speech about being willing to do the hard but obvious course of action (implying he'll "bell the cat"), but he simply tosses the remote overboard so it can't be used and goes back to praying with a group of prisoners, giving his previous speech a different implication, and upon retrospect, calling the cops out for not doing the right thing to begin with.
  • Downfall: A deleted scene sees a variation of this. A bunch of characters are hiding in a bomb shelter during the Battle of Berlin. A Nazi brownshirt (i.e. a member of the party but not the military) catches one of them, a veteran who lost his arm on the Eastern Front, and launches into a shrill and self-righteous lecture about his defeatism and how the man is not out fighting the Soviets to the end like a good patriotic German. Unfortunately for him, an actual soldier overhears him, is unimpressed by the naked hypocrisy, agrees that there's people in the bunker who need to be doing their part more... and promptly grabs the Brownshirt and pulls him, whining and complaining, out of the bunker.
  • This was a running gag in Kenny Rogers' The Gambler movies. The titular character is able to face down crowds of enemies with a pistol that only carries two bullets. They're guaranteed to get him if they rush him, but nobody wants to go first and get shot.
  • In the climax of Harakiri, Hanshiro is alone and surrounded by dozens of the Ii Clan's retainers... and proceeds to kill or wound almost half of them because none are willing to actually risk their lives to create an opening for their comrades to gang up on him. Sure, they could easily rip him to shreds by attacking all at once, but nobody wants to be the first guy to enter the range of Hanshiro's sword. This, in fact, plays right into Hanshiro's revenge; its his final and most damning exposure of the Ii Clan's hypocrisy and dishonor, showing that for all their talk of being a mighty samurai family, they're really just a bunch of cowardly, lying bullies who turn chicken the second their backs are up against the wall.
  • Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight II: Adas, Janeczka, Mariusz, and Wanessa come up with a plan to lure Zosia out into view so they can open fire on her. Janeczka asks who will be the bait, and everyone looks at her, indicating who that will be. She immediately starts refusing, only to cut to a shot of her standing outside the cabin in an open area.
  • Star Wars: During one point in the final battle of Rogue One, the rebels have to throw a particular switch. The only problem is that to get to it they have to cross an open field with no cover, and dozens of stormtroopers who can actually shoot well aiming at them. One of the rebels takes a couple of seconds to psyche himself up, then declares that he's going to make the run... and is shot the moment he steps out from his cover.
  • Tombstone: After Curly Bill kills the town marshall, Wyatt Earp knocks him out and orders him taken to jail. The other cowboys surround him in order to take Bill back, until Earp puts a gun to Ike Clanton's head. Earp admits that they'll get him in a rush, but not before he blows Clanton's head off, (and possibly shoots one or two others) so Clanton tells the others to back down.
  • Unforgiven: After the climactic shootout, William Munny issues a brutal threat to everyone in Big Whiskey that if anyone even takes a shot at him as he leaves, he'll kill them and everyone they know, and even burn their house down. A deputy who escaped the massacre in the saloon is hiding together with another citizen behind a wagon with a rifle and the other man encourages him to shoot Munny down — but even with a clear shot at Munny and the outlaw oblivious to his presence, the deputy is just too terrified by the threat to even take the chance, just in case he misses. He offers the rifle to the other man, who refuses it claiming "I ain't no deputy!" and Munny rides out of town untouched.
  • Subtly shows up several times in Yojimbo:
    • The criminals that make up the two gangs competing over the town are mostly bullies and cowards; they're happy to torment and abuse locals who aren't able or willing to fight back, but put them in a situation where they're in danger and it's another story. When Sanjuro manipulates both gangs into a showdown, everyone is so scared that they can only inch towards each other and then nervously back away the second someone from the other side takes a step towards them. Much to Sanjuro's amusement, they keep doing this routine until word arrives that a government official is about to come into town and the gangs have to stop to hide any trace of their criminal activity.
    • At the film's climax Ushitora's gang confronts Sanjuro, led by Unosuke, who has been depicted throughout as probably the only truly dangerous gangster in town. Besides Unosuke, who is armed with his pistol, there are about 9 others, all armed with swords. However, when Sanjuro immediately mortally wounds Unosuke, none of the others is willing to be the first to attack him, even though they'd probably overwhelm him if they did it together. The result is that the battle-hardened Rōnin tears through them while they either try to run or stand around waiting for someone else to do something. By the time any of them tries to take any action it's too late.

  • Older Than Feudalism: The trope namer is an ancient fable called "Belling the cat", in which a group of mice suggests to nullify the threat of a cat that threatens them by putting a bell on them, only to get stumped when one mouse asks, "Who will bell the cat?"
  • In the Israeli short story collection Abu Nimer Stories (link in Hebrew), which may or may not be a collection of folk stories told by an old Arab from Jaffa to the compiler(/writer), features a variation of the story, in which a fox is the one who offers the plan in exchange for a reward, and when the mice ask how to hang the bell he claims it's 'just a technicality'. When he asks for the reward, the mice point out a large chunk of delicious cheese on a shelf the fox can't reach; when he asks how he’s supposed to reach it, they claim it's 'just a technicality'.
  • Older Than Feudalism in China as well, as it shows up in ancient commentaries of The Art of War. Concerning strategic points, a commentator said, "When a cat is at the mousehole, ten thousand rats cannot come out. When a tiger guards the fords, ten thousand deer cannot cross." The commentary implies both using this trope and Geo Effects to hold vital points. Holding them with elite troops who will make taking that point so dangerous that it can't be assaulted; troops ordered to do so will break before they can achieve success.
  • This is the premise behind the Isaac Asimov story C-Chute. A group of humans are being held captive on a spaceship. One of them comes up with a dangerous plan to retake the ship: exit via the eponymous chute and re-enter via the rocket maneuvering tubes which the aliens on the bridge won't be expecting. Of course, someone has to volunteer to carry out this task.
  • Discworld:
    • In The Light Fantastic, a group of men from a mob approach Cohen the Barbarian and one of them tells him to surrender, as he says Cohen can't kill them all. Cohen replies, "Perhaps so, but you will be dead." The group suddenly decides that someone else can deal with Cohen.
    • In Guards! Guards!, a dragon has just become the monarch of Ankh-Morpork, and has demanded a Virgin Sacrifice because it's expected of a dragon. Virtually everyone present is willing to murmur in agreement with whatever brave fool who takes the moment to protest this policy. Unfortunately, to everyone's exasperation, no-one present is brave or foolish enough to actually protest. Naturally, everyone blames everyone else for this.
    • In Night Watch, cynical old cop Sam Vimes is sent back through time to the era when he was a teen who just recently joined the police, as is a Serial Killer named Carcer that he was chasing. Through a complicated series of events, Carcer winds up killing an early mentor of Vimes who was about to teach young Sam a few things, and Vimes takes the mentor's identity and place so his past self can still be taught the right way to be a cop. At one point the younger version of Sam starts speaking out about the current despotism, in particular how bad the Secret Police are and how cruelly and needlessly they torture people. The older Vimes agrees the torture is bad, and asks why nobody has stopped the secret police yet. Sam essentially responds by saying "Well... because they torture people who talk about doing things like that."
  • In Tanith Lee's The Dragon Hoard, Jasleth and other rowers hide to await the sea monster and attack it, but when it actually appears, they nervously offer each other the chance to do it.
  • For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs , Heinlein's half-finished first novel, is about a time traveler who visits a future United States where this trope is in effect; before entering an offensive war, the citizens eligible for military service must vote to go to war. Anyone voting pro-war is also first in line for enlistment. As you can see in the Real Life folder below, this was actually proposed in 1910, but failed to pass.
  • Honor Harrington: Invoked by Her Modesty Berry Zilwicki when she has to leave her boyfriend behind to run the government in her absence (she needs to bring most of her Cabinet with her) and it's pointed out that this might provoke some protests, given that he doesn't actually have any kind of government position.
    Berry: The law says I can order one person exiled every year, right? Totally at my discretion? No appeals, no arguments, no ifs, ands, or buts. I am correct, am I not?
    Prime Minister DuHavel: Yes, Your Majesty.
    Berry: Fine. Spread the word far and wide—have it announced on all the news stations, hire people to shout it from the rooftops—that the first jackass who questions Hugh's right to run the show while we're gone is immediately exiled.
  • In Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, when the head wolf fails to take down the prey, the pack can take him on — but, as he reminds them, it is his right that they come one by one. (Almost averted when he tells them he won't fight back if they let Mowgli go, and then averted by Mowgli himself taking charge of the situation.)
  • Monday Begins on Saturday has this exchange as the characters are trying to solve the mystery of a man (their boss) and his parrot:
    "Know what I think?" I said. "The simplest thing would be to ask Janus. Whose parrot is it, where is it from, and all the rest."
    "But who's going to ask?" Roman inquired.
    No one volunteered.
  • In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein, Manny is in a crowd listening to a revolutionary's impassioned declaration that they have to get rid of the tyrannical Authority, and he thinks, "A fine idea. But who bells cat?" A bit later, Manny is a key player in belling the cat.
  • Nomes Trilogy: A Powder Keg Crowd of nomes talk about getting revenge on humans by torturing a captive human. Grimma stops them by asking individuals suggesting tortures to do it themselves. "Well I didn't mean me..."
  • Sword of Truth: In Wizard's First Rule, the first book of the series, a lynch mob comes for Zedd, accusing him of being an evil wizard who has to be killed before he destroys them all. Zedd points this trope out by noting that the mob would have to be extremely brave to come at him, considering all the terrible and deadly powers they seem to think he has. By the end of Zedd's little speech, most of them are profusely apologizing and begging to be let leave.

    Live Action TV 
  • 3rd Rock from the Sun:
    Don: But who's gonna do it?
    Tommy: I'll do it.
    Don: Could be dangerous.
    Tommy: Harry'll do it.
  • Babylon 5: Inverted in one episode. Warships from several different alien races arrive, all demanding to take custody of Deathwalker. Ivanova buys time by getting the starship captains to argue with each other over who has first dibs.
    • Played straight later, when B5 secedes from Earth and a strike force is on route to bring the rebellious station back into line. As the station prepares to repel them, Ivanova volunteers to lead the fighter squadron, reasoning with Captain Sheridan that if they are to order their men to fire on their own, then one of them should be there with them.
    • A cat gets belled almost every episode. One of the recurring themes of the show (deliberately, by Word of God) is that there are mice who bell cats. In the final confrontation with the Shadows, the best way to lure them into a trap is to "let" them steal the trap's location from the wreckage of a defeated warship. Who will fight a known hopeless battle just so the enemy can pick over their corpse properly? The One gives the order, a Ranger obeys it, the cat gets belled. And yes, the Ranger knows exactly what's being asked of him.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: In one episode, Buffy has been tied up due to being temporarily Ax-Crazy, and Xander and Oz realize they need to get close to her and check her restraints. Cue a nervous laugh followed by an Oh, Crap! from Xander.
    • The Watcher's Council try to use their information on Glory to regain control of Buffy, until she points out that without her they are helpless to stop Glory alone.
  • In Chernobyl, Legasov asks for volunteers to go to the basement of the ruined plant to open the valves and drain the water there and prevent a steam explosion that would make things much worse if the molten core gets into the water. The gathered plan workers are outraged that they would essentially be sent into a Suicide Mission, and for what, a measly 400 rubles stipend? But then Scherbina speaks up, and gives a very good reason why they have to make the sacrifice. Three men then volunteer.
    Scherbina: You'll do it, because it must be done. You'll do it, because no one else can. And if you don't, millions will die. If you tell me that's not enough (of a reason), I won't believe you.
  • Doctor Who:
    • Invoked in a Badass Boast in "The Pandorica Opens". The Legion of Every Species the Doctor Ever Fought is descending on the planet the Doctor's on. The Doctor gets on the radio and reminds them that he's always been able to take the respective species when they weren't working together. Of course, what he doesn't know is that they're not there to kill him...
      The Doctor: Look at me, no plan, no backup, no weapons worth a damn. Oh, and something else I don't have: Anything! To! Lose! So! If you're sitting up there in your silly little spaceships with all your silly little guns, and you've got any plans on taking the Pandorica, tonight, just remember who's standing in your way. Remember every black day I ever stopped you. And then, AND THEN, do the smart thing. (beat) Let someone else try first. (cue shot of all the spaceships flying away)
      • The Pandorica: built to contain the most feared thing in all the Universe... and what did the Doctor just go to great lengths to remind everyone?
    • It comes up in "Day of the Moon" when the Doctor, River and Rory show up to rescue Amy from the Silence.
      The Doctor: I know you're team players and everything, but River will definitely kill at least the first three of you–
      River: Oh, the first seven, easy.
      The Doctor: Seven, really?
      River: Mmm, eight for you, honey.
      • Incidentally it turns out River is underselling herself to spare his feelings; as soon as the Doctor is out of the room she kills them all in seconds.
  • Everything's Gonna Be Okay: In the latter half of Season 2, Matilda gets it into her head to propose to Drea. Everyone else thinks that marriage is a terrible idea, but nobody wants to be the one to step in and tell Matilda this. Nicholas tries to suggest that maybe Matilda should wait, but screws it up so badly that Matilda gets upset and he ends up giving her an engagement ring to try and cheer her up. Genevieve contemplates putting her foot down, but decides to take some Liquid Courage first and ends up so toasted that she gives her blessing instead. Suze, Drea's mother, refuses to be the one to say no because she knows that Drea would hate her for it. And Toby, Dreas' dad, ends up being useless because he adores the prospect of his little girl getting married. By the time Genevieve finally steels herself enough to tell Matilda to call it off, it's the day of the ceremony and Suze is ready to murder them all if they don't go through with it after having gone to great effort to set up the wedding ceremony on short notice.
  • Game of Thrones gives us a memory from Cersei Lannister, showing that Even Evil Has Loved Ones. While she was in labour before giving birth to her son, Joffrey, Cersei's brother Jaime (widely recognized as one of the greatest swordsmen in the kingdom) was informed he could not be in the room.
    Cersei: He just smiled and asked who proposed to keep him out.
  • Loki (2021): Both Mobius and Loki agree that it would be a good idea for one of them to go out and fix the Temporal Loom. However, whoever goes out will be subject to a great deal of temporal radiation, so they argue about which one of them should go out. Eventually, Victor Timely agrees to go out and fix the Temporal Loom, only for him to be spaghettified by the temporal radiation, which was higher than expected, in only a few seconds.
  • Our Miss Brooks: If a favor or a request for additional funds is to be made at Madison High School... it is Miss Brooks who is inevitably nominated to convey the demand to Principal Conklin. The episodes "Blue Goldfish" and "Stretch is in Love Again" are cases in point.
  • In Sense8, Capheus recalls how during his youth a group of angry men came to his house, armed with machetes, looking to kill him in revenge for the deeds of his father's tribe. His mother grabbed a small kitchen knife and stood in the doorway to block them from entering the house. As he tells it, if they had rushed her, they would have certainly overwhelmed her, probably killed her, and definitely killed him. However, she was also certain to take at least one of them down with her. When she refused to back down due to their threats, they eventually gave up and moved on, because none of them wanted to be the one who would be killed by her.
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: The Wormhole Aliens/Prophets, when the Dominion finally manages to bring down the minefield and send their fleet through the wormhole. They want Bajor safe and they find it disruptive when ships travel through the wormhole, yet it takes Sisko pointing out that only they have the power to stop the fleet for them to do something — and even then, they inform Sisko their intervention at his behest will mean paying a personal price: "The Sisko is of Bajor, but he will find no rest there."
    • Whether it's refusing to turn DS9 over to a Bajoran coup, blocking the Dominion fleet's entry to the Alpha Quadrant, or drawing Romulus into the war, chances are Sisko will end up belling the cat. Unless the cat in question is the Federation itself, in which case Kira will do it.
  • Survivor: This is a common trend in many seasons, especially the later ones, and in later episodes; some players might want someone in a position of power gone, but nobody wants to lead the charge against them for fear of being targeted and voted off themselves. This is doubly true if the person in power has an immunity idol, which they could easily use as insurance if they anticipate a coup.
    • Subverted in the Survivor: Redemption Island season, in that the alliance that formed to counter Russell Hantz and his "concubines" had no trouble finding a willing member to go out and act as the decoy.

  • "Billy Don't Be a Hero" combines this with Jumped at the Call (much to the dismay of the protagonist's fiancee):
    I need a volunteer to ride up / And bring us back some extra men / And Billy's hand was up in a moment / Forgetting all the words she said

  • Invoked by Satan in one episode of Old Harry's Game to quash a demonic coup d'état. Satan points out to them that, while he could easily kill any one of them individually, if the rebels were to all attack him at once they could probably weaken him enough that the second half would survive. No one is particularly eager to be in the first half.

  • It's fairly common in The Four Gospels for the enemies of Jesus to try to trap Him into supporting an unpopular cause or betray a possible hypocrisy in his teachings, only for Jesus to point out how unwilling they are to act on their words. In one example, the Pharisees drag an adulterous woman before him and inform Him that the law requires her to be stoned to death, intending to trap Him out. Jesus responds with "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone"; since, of course, everyone eagerly demanding the woman's death are themselves guilty of sins that just haven't been publicly exposed, everyone knows it, and to step up to be the first to throw stones would be to expose themselves as a hypocrite or worse, no one is willing to go first.
    • An old joke subverts this; Jesus says the line, only for a stone to fly out of the crowd and bean the woman. Cue an embarrassed Jesus saying, "Mom!" note 
    • A variation of the joke is that the reason Jesus uses the male pronoun is because his mother does not count as a "he".
  • Also from The Bible: In 1st Samuel chapter 17, the Israelites are faced with the situation of who's going to take on Goliath's challenge of facing him man-to-man in combat, with King Saul promising a reward to the man who would succeed in defeating the giant. Enter a 17-year-old shepherd boy named David, armed with only a sling, a few stones, and faith in God that he can take down the giant just as he took down a bear and a lion. David's overwhelming victory against Goliath astounded even King Saul, who was wondering whose son he was of the families of Israel.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Magic: The Gathering: This is a common problem in multiplayer. One player will have enough power on the board to remove any one player from the game if they are attacked, but not enough to win outright. The other players then must face the choice of either belling the cat and provoking that player's ire or holding out for another answer, possibly giving the "cat" player a Victory Through Intimidation.
  • Mouse Guard, the game based on the comic of the same name, is an interesting play on this story. Mice patrol the forest, helping their fellow mouse citizens, fighting weasel bandits, and handling the enormous beasts that trample/invade their villages. So when someone asks who will bell the bear/moose/snake/owl, a member of the Mouse Guard steps forward and says, "Me."

    Video Games 
  • Dragon Age II:
    • Sebastian tells Fenris that it's their duty to inform the Templars about "the maleficar" in Hawke's circle of friends. Fenris' response invokes this trope, as his response to Sebastian is basically "If you want to turn in Hawke's friends, be prepared to incur Hawke's wrath."
    • In the pro-mage ending, a small army of Templars arrive after Hawke has just killed Knight-Commander Meredith, who was Drunk on the Dark Side after being empowered by a lyrium statue. The soldiers all back up in fear from Hawke, since while Hawke has done something blatantly illegal, that same actions was also thought to be impossible. So who's going to stop Hawke? No one wants to take the first step.
  • Halo: Reach: Collectable data pads tell about the Assembly, a council of A.I.s secretly manipulating humanity behind the scenes. To avert suspicion about them, one AI suggests that they occasionally offer one of their number for vivisection so that humans will mistake any discovered plotting as just a singular malfunctioning AI. Since obviously nobody wants to be the one to be dissected alive, the AI who proposes it also offers to be first.
  • RuneScape: A retired adventurer known as the Wise Old Man has turned to armed bank robbery for amusement and profit, because his past quests were undertaken for EXP and not fiscal reward. Since none of the Draynor locals are equipped to deal with such a powerful mage, they are unable to arrest him or press charges. The best they can do is station guards to watch his house at all times, and hope that he doesn't actually do anything.

  • Stand Still, Stay Silent: The action in question fortunately never has to be carried out, but a scene has Sigrun get the idea that her scout Lalli, whose cousin Tuuri is on her small crew as well, got eaten by a monster. She turns to Mikkel and Emil who are behind her and asks who of them wants to break the news to Tuuri. This causes Emil, who's good friends with Lalli, to check things out himself and notice that Lalli's tracks go on much further than Sigrun thought they did.
  • In Widdershins, an argument breaks out over who breaks the circle — but a third party does it.

    Web Original 
  • In the fourth episode of Dinosauria, a flock of Geosternbergia are waiting at the edge of a cliff to go out to sea to feed. Problem is, a Tylosaurus is patrolling the waters below, and none of the pterosaurs want to be the first to dive in and risk getting eaten. Ultimately, the flock's Alpha Male goes first and escapes the mosasaur, giving the rest of the Geosternbergia the confidence they need to head out.
  • A regular feature of Yogscast multi-player games of Civilization. Every other player knows that at some point Lewis will build up and overwhelm them, but their alliances almost always fall apart due to players not wanting to actually move against him. The one time that Pyrion rivaled him, everyone else panicked and helped Lewis beat him.

    Western Animation 
  • Blood of Zeus: When a mob comes to "test" Heron's mother to make sure she's not a demon by burning her with a hot poker, Heron stands in her defense, brandishing a knife. The mob tells him that he can't kill them all, and he says they're right — just some of them. Then he asks who's willing to be the first one, and the mob hesitates.
  • Looney Tunes:
    • "Bell Hoppy", starring Sylvester the Cat, reverses and humorously twists and parodies this trope. The Grand Exalted Poobah of the Loyal Order of Alley Cats Mouse and Chowder Club has just rejected Sylvester's request for membership. Baby kangaroo Hippety Hopper escapes from an importing warehouse and is later found by a very hungry Grand Exalted Poobah. Unsurprisingly, Hippety is mistaken for a giant mouse and when the cat is clobbered, he suggests to the other members that they should put a bell around Hippety's neck, so they could hear him coming and gang up on him. And because nobody else wants to do it, the Grand Exalted Poobah tricks a desperate Sylvester into belling Hippety on the grounds that it's an initiation test. Predictably, no matter what Sylvester tries, he ends up wearing the bell and getting clobbered. But then Sylvester uses ch-ch-ch-chicanery to get the critter to bell himself, and it appears that Hippety's unknown-to-him fate has been sealed... except that the zookeeper catches the escaped kangaroo and places him in a truck to take him to the zoo, and Hopper actually likes his new toy. The other cats leap into the street, waiting for their prey... and get run down by the truck!
    • "Sniffles Bells the Cat" has a group of mice debating what to do about the resident cat; Sniffles suggests the bell idea and everyone agrees to it, especially Sniffles, who realizes too late that he's not only the one given the bell but has been locked outside the mousehole. He reacts to this about as well as expected, then does run into the cat and gets it belled in spite of himself. Of course in the last scene he regales the other mice about his bravado over said cat, with fingers firmly crossed behind his back.
    • Even Bugs Bunny got into the act. In "Knighty Knight Bugs", the Knights of the Round Table are called upon to recover their beloved Singing Sword. Not surprisingly, they are all too scared to think about the task ("the Black Knight has a fire-breathing dragon!"). In a case of Tempting Fate Bugs, dressed as a jester, enters and announces "Only a fool would go after the Singing Sword!" To which the king responds "A good idea... fool!"
  • The Simpsons: In the episode "Who Shot Mr. Burns?", several armed characters threatens to kill Mr. Burns after he shows up at the town meeting. Mr. Burns then dares them to actually do it, causing everyone to look away, hoping someone else would attack him.
    Mr. Burns: Oh, you all talk big, but who here has the guts to stop me?
  • The Smurfs (1981): Simply how the plot for the episode "A Bell For Azrael" starts off: the Smurfs make a bell for Azrael, and they draw straws for who will be the one to bell the cat. As it turns out, Brainy gets the short straw. Fortunately, Brainy manages to get the bell on Azrael without sacrificing himself by having its string loop around his tail.
  • Tom and Jerry uses this in "Little School Mouse". Teacher Jerry includes "Belling The Cat" in a survival lesson for Nibbles/Tuffy. It ends poorly for Jerry, but the little grey mouse manages to get Tom to wear the bell simply through The Power of Friendship.
  • The Venture Brothers: In the pilot episode, Dr. Venture and Brock are going to visit the U.N. when a large crocodile who stowed away on their jet attacks Brock. In front of a U.N. official and the soldiers stationed outside, Brock easily kills the croc with a knife. The youngest and runtiest of the soldiers tells Brock that he can't enter U.N. Headquarters with a weapon, and that he'll have to confiscate the knife. Brock (while being covered head to toe in blood and shooting the young soldier a horrifying Death Glare complete with psycho Eye Twitching) dares the kid to go ahead and take the knife from him. The young soldier suddenly realizes exactly how much danger he's in and looks to the other soldiers for support, only to see them frantically shaking their heads at him. Judging by the fact that Brock still has his knife later, no one decided they were up for belling this cat. Scene.

    Real Life 
  • Charles Blondin, after tightrope-walking across Niagara Falls, reputedly turned to the gathered crowd and asked then "Who thinks I could do that with a person on my back?" The crowd unanimously cheered at this idea, until he pointed to some poor fellow in the front row and said, "You sir! Hop on!"
  • After the death of Pope Nicholas IV in 1292, the deliberating cardinals took over two years to choose a successor. A pious hermit named Pierro de Morrone sent the cardinals a letter warning that God would punish them if they didn't get the job done. They responded by electing him Pope, much to his dismay. After initially trying to refuse he accepted the Papacy (as Celestine V). He then issued a decree that Popes could resign the position and did exactly that after five months in office.
  • In 1910 in the United States of America, it was suggested that this trope be codified into law when it came to declarations of war. If Congress decided to go to war, the final declaration would be put to a nationwide referendum, with all the voters voting yes or no to the war. The catch? Any man who voted to go to war with another nation would, if the vote succeeded, also automatically volunteer himself for military service in the war. This idea did not pan out, and was never put into law. Presumably this is where Heinlein got the idea for in For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs .
  • In economics, this is known as a collective action failure. A common example is pollution: everyone wants there to be less of it, but good luck getting a voluntary agreement on who has to emit how much less.
  • In historical military tradition, a group of soldiers tasked with doing an especially dangerous or unlikely thing (such as storming the walls of a castle) are called "The Forlorn Hope", or in French, "Les Enfants Perdus" (The Lost Children). Such soldiers might be volunteers or conscripted criminals who were assigned enormously difficult tasks where nearly everyone in the group would be expected to be wounded or killed. Anyone in a Forlorn Hope who lived through their assignment would be granted promotions or large cash bonuses, and for young junior officers in particular it could make their career and put them on a fast track to the senior ranks. That is, of course, assuming they survived it.
  • This trope is also the reason why some people did not know whom to side with during the American Revolution; no one wanted to be on the losing side. Sure, being independent from Britain is great and all, but... what if the rebels lose?
  • Solon codified this trope into law in the 4th Century BCE. The citizens got to vote on whether or not to go to war, every citizen getting one vote. The catch was that if the city went to war every citizen was required to fight (whether he'd favored the war or not). It was a warrior culture, so wars still happened: but it sure made Athenians think twice about starting one.