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.
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’:
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.
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,