A group agrees that an action would lead to a very desirable result, until they realize someone has to carry it out. (Often a third party, like the intended victim, has to point it out.)
This can range from the realization that it 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 or 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? 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 and 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 getting drawing his own tail.
- In Tombstone, after Curley 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.
- This trope playing out is ultimately how the Joker's plan for the two ferries fails in The Dark Knight, on both the civilian and prison boats. (On both boats, the passengers are provided with a detonator that would destroy the other ferry, and informed that if both ferries are still intact after a time limit, both will be blown up.) In the first case played straight: nobody is willing to actually be the one who pushes the button even after they take a vote that ends in favor of doing it. While on the other boat there's an inversion: a prisoner steps forward making 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.
"Give it to me, and I'll do what you should have did ten minutes ago."
- 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.
- 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 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. Here's the scene on youtube, albeit in poor quality.
- 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 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.
- 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?"
- 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.
- 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 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 another Pratchett work, the 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..."
- 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.)
- 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.
- In Sheri S. Tepper's Six Moon Dance, a Gender Swap results in the ladies suddenly deciding against a plan.
- In Wizard's First Rule, first book of the Sword of Truth 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.
- 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 its just a technicality. When he asks for the reward, the mice point out a large chunk of delicious cheese on a shelf the fox cant reach; when he asks how hes supposed to reach it, they claim its just a technicality.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Invoked in a Badass Boast in the Doctor Who episode "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...
Doctor: Look at me, no plan, no backup, no weapons worth a damn. Oh, and something else I don't have: Any! Thing! 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.
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.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.
- This is a common trend in many seasons of Survivor, 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.
- 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.
- Inverted in an episode of Babylon 5. 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.
- 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.
- The Wormhole Aliens/Prophets on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, 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.
- In one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 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.
- "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.
- 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."
- This is a common problem in multiplayer Magic: The Gathering. 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.
- 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.
- In Halo: Reach, collectable data pads tell about the Assembly, a council of AIs 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.
- In 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.
- One of the issues that crops up now and then in Town of Salem is that a suspicious player could always be a jester, and usually town and evil roles tend to not take that risk and abstain, with some declaring that they will pull a Heroic Sacrifice just in case.
- Impure Blood: You go put him under arrest, then.
- In Widdershins, an argument breaks out over who breaks the circle -- but a third party does it.
- 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.
- A regular feature of Yogscast multi-player games of Civilization. Every other player knows 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 rivalled him, everyone started freaking out and helped Lewis beat him.
- Merrie Melodies: "Bell Hoppy," which reverses and humorously twists and parodies this trope. Here, the members of the Loyal Order of Alley Cats Mousing and Chowder Club, who just refused to take Sylvester (in his hapless "giant mouse chaser" persona) as a member, want to bell "the largest mouse they can find" ... only here, it's the starving cats who hope to take advantage with their prey wearing the bell (so they can eat him), instead of the other way around (mice hoping to avoid becoming prey to a hungry cat). Naturally, Hippety Hopper the baby kangaroo that Sylvester forever confuses for a giant mouse happens on the scene and the lisping "puddy tat" is drafted to place the bell around his neck. Predictably, no matter what he 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 back 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!
- That wasn't the first Warners' cartoon about it either. In 1941, "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!"
- MGM's 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.
- Simply how the plot for The Smurfs 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.
- In the pilot episode of The Venture Bros., 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.
- 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), only to resign five months later.
- 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 said war. This idea did not pan out, and was never put into law.
- 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? note