Several of the blogs I visit had references yesterday to an incident in Detroit where an elderly man was carjacked and severely injured. What made the incident newsworthy was it happened at a gas station, not in an isolated area, and there were other customers present. Numerous people saw the injured man; no one stopped to help him. As news reports described it, after having his leg broken in the assault, the victim had to crawl from the gas pumps where he'd been attacked into the station to ask for help. Naturally, a number of commentators cited the fact the incident happened in Detroit as a factor in the perceived callousness and inhumanity of bystanders.
Pshaw. It could have happened anywhere. Detroit doesn't have a monopoly on disturbing human behavior. Similar stories make the news on a regular basis, and, despite my occasional rant that they're evidence we're becoming a meaner, more callous society, they've been happening for a long time. The phenomenon is common enough that social psychologists even have a name for it -- bystander effect. It is a perverse characteristic of human nature that the more people who are around when something bad happens to one person, the less likely it is that any of the bystanders will intervene. If you're the only witness to another's misfortune, you're most likely going to step up and ask if they need help or if there's anything you can do. After all, if not you, who? There's no one else around. If, however, you see a little old lady get mugged on a crowded city sidewalk, the odds are you'll walk right on by. It's not your problem. Lots of people around; someone else will take care of it. Everyone else is just walking by; why should you stop? End result? Everyone keeps on walking while the old lady sits there alone and bleeding.
Of course, if just one person bucks the tendency and intervenes, suddenly the entire crowd will remember they're all human, too, and want to help. People aren't always callous; sometimes they're just oblivious to social conditioning.