Bystanders and Heroes: The Dance of Defiance and Conformity

For good and bad, the presence of others shapes our personal conduct

Posted Dec 26, 2012

You may have heard of the recent death of Ki Suck Han, who was pushed onto the subway tracks in New York City after an altercation with a homeless man. For the 20-some seconds it took the train to reach and kill him, the many onlookers offered no help, some scattering away. A photographer at the scene even snapped a morbid picture of the doomed man on the tracks, staring at the oncoming train.

Does the name Kitty Genovese ring a bell?

It did to me.

It also did for Joe Nocera, the NY Times columnist. In a recent column, Nocera tied the recent subway death to another event, back in 2007, when a construction worker named Wesley Autry jumped to save a man who fell onto the tracks during a seizure. Comparing the two events, Nocera concluded that the reason Autrey acted, while no one acted to help Mr. Han, was that Autrey was on the subway platform alone, while when Han fell the subway platform was full of people, resulting in the famous ‘bystander effect,’ a diffusion of responsibility leading to tragic inaction.

It was the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese by her boyfriend--witnessed by many in the nearby apartment building all of whom failed to offer help or call the police--that led psychologists to study how the presence of others inhibits helping behavior.

Reflecting on the lone Autrey’s decisive action against the bystander paralysis that doomed Mr. Han, Nocera concludes that “it’s hard to be a hero” and that, “sadly, science says we’re more likely to do nothing than act like Wesley Autrey.”

These conclusions, however, betray some confusion about the bystander effect, particularly with regard to the concept of ‘heroism’ and the role of group pressure.

First, the bystander effect does not address heroism per se, but rather helping behavior, which is fairly normative--almost the opposite of heroism, which is commonly seen as an exceptional display of sacrifice or courage.

But even if we take helping as ‘heroic,’ the fact remains that, according to the bystander effect, the same person who’s acted heroically when alone would not have acted ‘heroically’ in a crowd.

Viewed in this way, heroic action appears to reside within the situation rather than the individual. As the Yiddish saying goes, “The thief is not the mouse, it’s the hole in the fence.”

This is not an easy notion for most of us to accept, as it tends to undermine our whole concept of ‘the hero.’ We think of the hero as one who rises to the occasion. But in fact, rising to the occasion is often easy, unless the occasion is breaking from a group norm.

If you look at it like that, breaking with the group norm could be regarded as one of the defining criteria for heroism. Heroism, in this view, requires nonconformity.

However, nonconformity, it turns out, leads to its own problems. A functioning society requires a measure of conformity. If everyone acts ‘heroically’ by disregarding group norms, then we can’t have a functioning society; without a functioning society individuals will find it hard to survive, which is bad, because survival is kind of the point.

Moreover, while it may indeed result in a failure to help, conformity can also be harnessed to great ends. The presence of a crowd may sap our initiative in the on-the-spot circumstance of helping a stranger and steer us away from our better angels, but it may also embolden us toward sustained action for social justice, which will, down the line, improve the lives of many strangers even more than the occasional individual act of helping.

The tension between the power of individual agency and the power of the group perhaps helps to explain one paradox of the human soul: while we often adulate those in the news who go against the group, perceiving them as heroic, we look down on contrarians in our day-to-day lives. After all, nobody likes the snitch, the whistle blower or the gadfly.

In our imagination we often identify with the rebel, the nonconformist who refuses to play by the rules (since such identification helps us see ourselves as unique). In real life, however, we tend to suspect and reject the rebel. Mick Jaeger is adored by a multitude of middle-aged mainstream people who would tear out what’s left of their hair if their own sons decided to quit school, started womanizing, doing drugs, and joined a band. Steve Jobs the mythic millionaire rebel is beloved, but not many of us would have gladly put up with Jobs-like behavior in our children, or friends.

In real life we tend to rely on conformity. After all, the protest of many will topple dictators while the protest of one is an easily discarded nuisance. A coordinated group effort can move mountains, and hence its attraction.

But hence also its additional danger. The group has power, but what often goes unmentioned is the fact that this power is agnostic in valence. The crowd controls us, for good or bad. Revolutionaries march on the monarchy as one, emboldened in their numbers. Soldiers charge as one, compelled by group bonds; looters and lynching mobs attack in much the same way, sheltered and justified by the crowd.

In reality, of course, the forces of individual agency and group cohesion must find a balance for individuals and society to remain healthy and safe. Too much nonconformity leads to chaos and dissipation. Too much conformity leads to corruption where bad things are done and good things--such as helping a stranger at the train station--are left undone.