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Why We Stand By And Don't Help

Why we stand by and don't help: the bystander effect.

Do congested cities and urban populations increase human callousness? Is the bystander effect increasing?

Many of us were shocked by the viral video which showed a little girl run over by a van on a market street in Foshan, China. The driver of the van stops, then runs over the girl again. Within six minutes—all this caught on video—18 people walk or drive by the child lying seriously injured on the road. Then a second van drives over her without stopping. Finally, an older women passing by cries out for help and drags the child off the road. Is callousness to human suffering increasing?

Various experts and many ordinary people have given their explanations for the apparent callous bystander behavior ranging from an indictment of the Chinese people and repressive Communist government to established psychological theories. Yet, this incident in China was not isolated to that culture and country.

Thirty-eight people passively watched as a man stabbed and killed Kitty Genovese in New York City in the 1960's, prompting a famous trial. In a June 2000 parade of almost 1 million people in New York's Central Part, a group of men sexually attacked nearly 60 women. No-one offered assistance or even dialed 911. In June 2008, Sergio Aguilar methodically stomped to death his 2-year-old son, surrounded by friends, family and strangers. In April 2010, Hugo Alfredo Tale-Tax was stabbed to death in New York City, after coming to the aid of a woman being attacked by a thief. Tax was on the sidewalk for 90 minutes before firefighters arrived, during which at least 25 people walked by him and offered no assistance. On October 24, 2009 as many as 20 people watched as a 15 year old girl was brutally assaulted and raped outside a homecoming dance in Richmond, California. On May 30, 2011 in Massachusetts, a 78-year-old man was hit by a car and flung into the air. Traffic and pedestrians continued ignoring the injured man. In April 2010 a 79-year-old man was assaulted by 2 attackers on a Toronto subway, in full view of other subway passengers. No one offered assistance or called for help.

Are these incidents just a repetition of what we now know as the bystander effect? Or is it a reflection of increasing absence of altruism? Is it limited to acts of violence or has it spread to other parts of our culture. A review of the Enron and other corporate fraud scandals reveals that many people, not just the whistle blowers, knew what was happening and said and did nothing. In the recent Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation's privacy scandal, it became also apparent that many people knew about the illegal activities. And why did people stand idly by and watch others vandalize the downtown streets following the Vancouver hockey team's loss in the Stanley Cup final? Taken to a larger context, how did bystanders not act in Nazi Germany or Rwanda?

Why do people fail to help their fellow man or woman? Psychological research argues that fear, apathy and indifference are simplistic answers, contending instead that people are often restrained by a complex web of social pressures and group norms, particularly in crowds. Timothy Hart and Terrance Miethe, using National Crime Victimization Survey data, found that a bystander was present in 65% of the violent victimizations. A 2008 study by Mark Levine and Simon Crowther found that increasing group size inhibited bystander intervention.

In a classic psychological experiment by Bibb Latane at Ohio State University, college students in a waiting room heard a tape recording that simulated the sounds of a woman climbing on a chair to reach some papers. She fell, injured her ankle, calling out for help. Latane reported that 70% of people offered help if they were alone, but only 20% did so when waiting with other people in the room. Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo's study of more than 30,000 battered children injured by parental abuse indicates that a high percentage of people familiar with a child's case did nothing to help.

Common reasons from the research for non action or non intervention are: fear of retribution or reprisal, loss of privacy, fear of loss of relationship, and a belief in insufficient evidence.  Rachel Manning of the University of the West in the U.K., studied the bystander effect, and how the presence of others can undermine what may be our natural altruistic tendencies. She argues, consistent with Latane's research, that individual behavior in a group or crowd situation cannot be explained by theories of individualistic behavior outside of groups.

A 2011 meta-study by Peter Fischer and his colleagues from several universities has produced a massive amount of data on the bystander effect. Most of the research seems to point to a group phenomena, in which all members of the group are monitoring each other for cues as whether to act or not, often resulting in non-action. The other obstacle to non-action is the issue of responsibility. Bystanders often assume someone else will intervene (ie., take responsibility) and therefore feel less responsible.

Can anything be done to minimize the prevalence of the bystander effect? Many jurisdictions in Western countries have enacted Good Samaritan laws, which require people to come to the aid of someone whose life is in peril or is calling for help. Depending on the jurisdiction, penalties for not doing so vary.

Dacher Keltner of the University of California and director of the Greater Good Science Center, and frequent author of articles on the nature of altruism, says there are "often subtle differences that separate the bystanders from the morally courageous people." He goes on to say it "becomes frightening and easier to understand how good people in Rwanda or Nazi Germany remained silent against the horror around them. Afraid, confused, coerced, or willfully unaware, they could convince themselves that it wasn't their responsibility to intervene."

What about the active bystanders? Why are they different? Why do they choose to act or intervene? Keltner cites the research of Ervin Staub who says active bystanders tend to have heightened concern for the welfare of others, greater feelings of social responsibility and a greater commitment to moral values.

One approach to increasing the prevalence of active bystanders and decreasing bystander passivity and apathy is through education. A number of jurisdictions now address this issue in the schools, with a particular focus on bullying. Some companies and public organizations have also initiated training programs that protect whistleblowers and heighten the need for bystander activism.

One thing seems clear: The more we live in cities and are part of crowds, the problems of ignoring the plight of individuals, of communities and groups will remain with us, unless we address it proactively.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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