By Bradley Wright
Suppose that you’re at the local convenience store buying the usual—chips, soda, and, if it’s a good day, some Ben & Jerry’s, and there, in the middle of the aisle, is a body. Someone is lying unconscious, bleeding profusely.
What would you do?
According to social psychologists, there’s a good chance that you would simply step over the person and go on your way.
Don’t believe that anyone would do this? Well, that’s exactly what happened in Wichita, Kansas. On July 4th, LaShanda Calloway was stabbed during a robbery, and as she lay there bleeding to death, five shoppers just stepped right over her and kept on going. One of the people actually stopped to take a picture with a cell phone!
How could this happen? When this story was posted on the web, a number of readers wrote comments along the lines of “what is the world coming to?” and “people these days!” The police chief of Wichita exclaimed, “what happened to our respect for life?" But people weren’t always helpful in the past, either.
In 1964, late at night in Queens, New York, Kitty Genovese parked her car and started to walk to her apartment when she was attacked and stabbed not once, not twice, but three times by the same assailant over a half-an-hour period. During that time she screamed for help on numerous occasions, and a total of 38 people heard her—some even watched the events outside their windows. Not a single person even called the police, let alone helped her, until it was too late and she was killed.
Social psychologists term this behavior the “bystander effect:” The more people present in an emergency situation, the less likely any given individual is to help. So, if you see someone in need, whether you help depends on if there are other people around. The more people nearby, the less likely you are to help.
This happens for two reasons. First, having other people around in an emergency creates a diffusion of responsibility. We might assume that others will help, so we don’t need to. They may even be better qualified to help, we may presume, so we should let them intervene. Maybe they are closer to the victim or saw the victim before we did, so somehow they have more responsibility than we do.
Second, having bystanders around changes our definition of the situation. According to one of sociology’s core theoretical perspectives, symbolic interactionism, we make sense of our daily situations through our interactions with others. Especially when we’re in an ambiguous situation, we look to others to figure out how we should understand the situation and what we should do (and they’re looking to us to figure things out too). If in an emergency situation we see that nobody else is helping, we might think that we shouldn’t either. Maybe it’s not really an emergency, or maybe there is nothing that can be done.
At this point you might be thinking that this is interesting, but it would never happen to you. Well, guess again. The bystander effect happens even when you’re aware of it. I know because it happened to me.
Two weeks ago some friends came over to go swimming. We have an in-ground pool, and two weeks ago a friend and her four-year-old daughter came over to go swimming. The girl couldn’t swim, so her mother put her in a life vest. But the life vest was too small, and it didn’t keep her head completely out of the water. After about paddling around for a while, the girl started to get tired, and, in the middle of the pool, she could no longer get her mouth above water. She couldn’t breathe and started to panic.
As this was happening, I was talking with the mother on the pool deck, and we turned to watch the girl. Now, if I had been alone, I would have just jumped in and pulled the girl out. Instead, I turned to the mother to see what she was doing. She looked calm (though I later found out that she wasn’t), and I thought maybe she was going to take care of the situation. So, we both stood there--for a very long 10 or 15 seconds before the mother jumped in. The girl was fine, though a little shaken. Afterwards I wondered why in the world I didn’t help, and then I realized what had happened: I gave responsibility to the mother, and I thought that maybe I was reading the situation wrong. Classic bystander effect.
The bystander effect also applies to bigger problems. Why have people been so slow to deal with global warming? Why have people ignored the AIDS pandemic in Africa for so long? Why do so few people care about stores selling products made in exploitive manufacturing conditions? We might think that the bigger a problem, the more likely we will be to do something about it, but, ironically, the exact opposite is true. If a problem affects many others, we’ll likely think that someone else should or will take care of it, or maybe we’ll see no one else doing anything and decide it’s not really a problem after all.
What then should we do? The next time you’re a bystander when someone needs help, don’t just stand by.