The Bystander Effect: What You Need To Know

In March of 1964 at about 3:00AM, a young woman by the name of Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in the middle of a street in New York. She should have been saved, thirty-eight people were watching from the windows of their apartments as she screamed for help as she was being attacked. And after the man (a business-machine operator by the name of Winston Moseley) left, he returned a few minutes later to stab her again, left, and then returned yet again to stab her once more before she died. Yet no one called the police until after she was already dead.

An elderly man, while sitting in a hospital waiting room, suddenly gasps and falls to the hard floor. He writhes in pain for several minutes before passing on. The other people sitting in the room watch and do nothing.

An 86 year-old veteran became the victim of a car jacking while at a gas station in February of this year. After the car-jackers broke his leg and sped off, he was forced to crawl on the ground to find help. ‘I noticed when I was crawling to the gas station, people were walking past by me like I wasn’t there’ the man said.

These stories sound horrific, because they are. You may have already heard one or two of these stories and thought to yourself, “Oh, goodness, if I had been there, I would have helped them! People are just sick these days!”

Well, folks, here is the truth: you probably would have done the same thing that everyone else did. The reason why is called “The Bystander Effect”.

Allow me to beg you to read on. Not just because you must know about this if you witness a horrific event, but you must know what to do if you are the subject of the event, and need to know how to stop the bystander effect from getting in the way of life-saving help.

Instinct

I’ll try not to bore you, because I need you to keep reading. Here’s the short and sweet explanation of the psychology behind it all. There are two explanations for the stories I’ve told you, I will call them ‘group psychology’ and ‘fellow witness psychology’:

Group Psychology

We are social creatures. Period. We are hardwired to want to be part of groups, cliques, be fans of the same team or politician. We want to follow the status quo, be accepted by our peers, go with whatever flow is currently, ah, flowing.

So what happens when something unexpected, something not part of the social expectation happens? We look around to see what everyone else is doing.

Guess what everyone else is doing? The same thing you are! Think of the man who was car-jacked, here is what the people walking by him were thinking:

1. No one is doing anything, so he must not be that badly hurt.

2. Someone else will help him, I don’t want attention drawn to myself.

or

3. What if it’s an act of some sort?

Fellow Witness Psychology

Let’s look at the case of Kitty Genovese. This is perhaps more understandable.

The people looking outside of their windows probably saw other people witnessing the murder, and so simply concluded that someone else would call the police. Also, the uncertainty of the situation, the shock, would cause some people to simply pause and hope that someone else would do something so they would not have to.

When there is only one person witnessing the incident, they are far more likely to help someone in need.

What If It Happens To You?

I need to tell you that the advice I’m about to give you is not proven, nor has it been tested (as far as I know, anyway). But from what I’ve read I hope this will give you the best shot of getting help, and not ending up like Kitty Genovese or any number of shooting victims.

A man by the name of Bernard Asbell wrote a wonderful book called What They Know About You (you may have noticed I mention this book quite a lot, and let me tell you, it’s for a good reason, this book is fantastic!), in a nutshell, social experiments have proven that, especially if you’re a woman, you are far more likely to get help if you manage even a flicker of eye contact. Why? Because remember – when you’re in a situation where you are the subject, you are separate from the people around you. So, to remedy this situation, you must remove someone else from them and make it we. Make them part of your situation. This may involve calling out something specific about them that makes it undeniable that you are talking to them, such as the color of their shirt or bag.

Several articles on what to do if you’re kidnapped (stay with me here!) suggest that a key to staying alive is to appear more human to someone who is currently a stranger to you. You can do this by saying that you have a family, how old you are, that people care about you and that you’re scared. I think that using this same idea with the bystander effect can be extremely useful.

The people who are in the iron grip of the bystander effect feel helpless and confused. It feels like a social straitjacket, an anchor on their actions. People will put their own lives at risk and, obviously, the lives of others in jeopardy because of the presence of other human beings.

The good news is, now that you know about the bystander effect, you will be able to control a situation where its grip takes control. Whether it’s over you, or the people around you.

I’m sorry to say it has been a couple of years since I looked into what recent research has been done into this, so I’ll edit this post in the next few days if I find something that I need to add/update. The driving force behind this post, honestly, is how frustrated I become when I hear news anchors talk down on the people who are affected by the bystander effect. They make comments about the deterioration of societal morals and our lack of empathy for our fellow man, when the only thing at play, for Pete’s sake, is just basic responses by our brain doing what it knows to do in a new situation. The stories are still horrific, the deaths, unnecessary and heartbreaking, but let’s not ignore the other factors and wag our fingers at those who walked by, shame-shaming them for reacting the way they did. I agree – they should have reacted differently, it doesn’t mean they could have. They didn’t know what to do, and didn’t have the understanding of what was happening to them, or their mind simply told them that it was not as serious, and that is easier to accept than to make a scene and have the whole thing end up being nothing.

I won’t bore you any longer by going on, but I do encourage you to look into the subject further.

Until I Write Again,

–Hannah-Elizabeth/Classic

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You Only Go Around Once

I’ve been thinking a lot. Which is a good sign, from what I hear. Other breaking news: my heart is beating, lymphatics are draining, and the Hindenburg went down in case you haven’t heard.

I’m scared about the next year. My mom has avoided the topic of the impending date of our separation when I turn 18 next year. I’ll be going further south to the University of Texas Pan American, and she and my father (and most likely my older brother) will become neighbors with Canada on Mackinac Island in Michigan. I’ve tried hugging her more and telling her how much I love her and expressing how proud I am of her success as an aesthetician, but I want to talk about goodbye.

Ever since I was 13 I began counting down the days to life on my own, making one scheme after another to get out quick. Some days because the fights were just that bad, and others because I was aching to try my hand at the dreams I had formulated while staring at those purple walls that I’m grateful I never had to paint over when we left.

You only go around once – that’s the line I’ve heard from toddlerhood onward, and only recently has it hit me head on what it means. You have choices to make every day, and once it’s gone, it can never be so again. My favorite philosopher and psychologist, William James, said that we never feel the exact same emotion twice. That’s because we feel different emotions for different reasons every time, so we can never feel the precise way we did the last time we felt it. In other words: you’ll only feel that brand of happiness once, you’ll only get kicked with that guilt in one swing.

I want to sit and talk with her a while about what inevitably will come to pass. A part of me is scared of when she does allow me, because now when she talks about her future, it’s no longer about dreams and ambitions and ending sentences with “One day I’ll get there.” Now, instead, they end with, “I may do that the rest of my life.” As though the day is so impending. But then, one cannot deny, it is. With my best friend’s wedding on the horizon, I’ll no longer have my Watson to rip the lenses off of my rose-colored glasses. When I’m at Pan-Am I will know no one, and be entirely alone for a companion who I can so entirely trust as I do with Heather, and the last thing I will do is call up my newly wed best friend in the wee small hours for one of my petty rants or paranoia episodes when things go bump in the night. No, I have to learn to always look reality in the face and consider all options and explanations, for once, learn to do such a thing alone.

At least I know I’ll only feel this brand of dread once, only get kicked with this regret in one swing.

It has been said before me, and so it will be said after. The reason stories of UFOs give us nightmares, goosebumps rise at the sound of invisible feet upon the floor, suspicion and fear arise when we think too long about the many monsters in the darkness, heck, why shaking hands give people with OCD a spike of terror, is because we do not understand. We fear the unknown. Where are the shoes that cause the echoing click? Where are the lights in the sky coming from? What could there possibly be in the darkness? Could this outstretched hand give me something deadly with a swift movement of greeting?

When we feel a dreading ache in our stomach, hearts and bones it’s that overprotective part of our mind sending signals that say very obviously “I don’t recognize this, I don’t understand this, therefore, I do not like this.” The past year I’ve come to see such an ache as a good thing: it tells us that we care about the outcome. But sometimes I feel this ache and overawareness of time and it’s passing make it difficult for me to enjoy the time I have left. Yesterday I suddenly asked my mom if she would like to go to Blueberries (a modern-styled frozen yogurt and boba tea place) if I paid for it. And as we sat and laughed I kept noticing lines on her face that I didn’t remember being there, I furrowed my brow in frustration that I didn’t perceive it earlier. Lines marking her cupids-bow upper lip and stretching from the sides of her nose and framing her mouth. Etchings near her eyes and on her forehead. When did my mother turn into a person? I wondered. A wise woman once said that there is a key point in life, where we stop seeing our parents as parents, and see them instead as people. My bubbly, Disneyloving, hardworking mother turned into a bubbly, Disneyloving, hardworking human being before my very eyes. And my heart broke a little.

Life is but a vapor, so says countless philosophers and the Bible itself. And what a beautiful vapor my mother is. I know I will wake up one day and she will be long gone, but, goodness, I can look into her eyes and hold onto her as long as I wish, it’s nothing but gripping falling sand in one’s fist. How can any human being properly love and cherish another in a way that stops time? I feel like this should exist. I feel like if I were to fight hard enough with nothing but my raw will that perhaps I can bend the cosmos in this way, that I might hold time in my hand and demand that it cease, and that it would. But the human will can only extend one’s reach so far, it can only do so much to hold the sun in one’s hand or the stars with one’s gaze. I can’t be the only one who has felt like this. Or perhaps William James would say I am. But then, what does he know? He’s dead. Where did his wisdom and ambition and raw will get him? All that is left of him is ink on a page. All that stands of Mr. James are quotes and requotes until sometimes words are said so often we don’t even care about what they mean anymore.

I wish that I could suspend the lives of the people I love for a while, but I know this would never be enough, it could never be enough. Because I am human, and so I fear the unknown of a world without them. But yet I still look into their eyes and hold them as tightly as I may, the sand continues to fall, the lines in the sand and the lines around her mouth are drawn by time, and nothing can be done to capture such vapors, what is done is done, what has passed has passed, and I am comforted only by the fact that I will only feel this brand of grief once, only get kicked with this fear in one swing.

Live On,

–Hannah-Elizabeth

Murder Of A Future Once Certain

I think the impossible dilemma when dealing with time, is the unpredictability it contains. Not regarding spacetime curvature or the actual counting down of a giant glittering sphere on New Years Eve, but the curious, human pondering of the contents of the meaning of the evershifting hand dancing pleasantly inside our pocket watches. Time, and what it contains for the human being.

We use our minds for memories and planning; the wonderous cognitive, executive functions of the frontal lobe forever biased by the amygdala when it comes to our overall view of our futures. Such beautiful roadmaps we create using experience and ambition. Such plans, using the key players we are currently focused upon, like a child using the nearest dolls to formulate an improv fairy tale, in which there is always a damsel in distress, and always prince charming to save the day.

What a shock to the system it is, even for a moment, when we glance down at our plans, schemes, and future mapped out before us, and suddenly grip the paper in utter terror when we realize that the page is white as snow, without a mark or a timeline to be found. An impossible fork in the road, leading a million places at once, and nowhere to go, because we have obliterated our own compasses for the sake of the everchanging heart. The unreliable beat of the ripping and tearing drum of every step we take, until we fall through into a formerly acoustic hideaway, once comfortable and safe, is now unsure and dangerous.

But time has a way of gentle healing, just as it specializes in the act of murder of a future once certain.

-Classic