Monday, February 27, 2012

Bystander effect

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.


  1. Nan,
    As I posted on another blog: Lets hope the man gets well and the cops catch the bad guys and lock their asses up.
    But, for everyone of these tales of apathy there are countless others of self-sacrifice (even loss of life) to assist others in distress.


  2. It's not apathy; it's more like herd behavior. Humans are social beings and conditioned from birth to take their behavioral cues from the people around them.

  3. I intervened. The bad guy then pointed his gun at me and said, "Stand still motherfucker or I'll blow yer head off!"

    I suggested to the victim that he give up his wallet ($200.). Despite a crippled leg and the presence of his 4 year old daughter, the victim began arguing with the bad guy.

    Unnoticed, I went next door and called the cops.

    Returning to the scene, with bad guy gone, the vic screamed at me that I was responsible for his stolen money.

    At this moment, with my back to the front door, I heard the door open and I then heard the sounds of two pump shotguns being cocked.

    I raised my arms straight up and slowly turned. Two cops, one kneeling, one standing had their shotguns aimed at me.

    I told them I was a bystander and after awhile they understood what had occurred.

    Where did happen, you ask? Wilshire Blvd. Beverly Hills California. About lunch time.

  4. Wow, Bill, no wonder cynics say no good deed goes unpunished.

  5. Nan, to add to the nightmares ...

    Several months before the robbery incident, a neighbor pounded on our door, her husband was having a heart attack.

    I rushed over to their house, and since I had recently had lessons in CPR, I attempted CPR ... by the time the medic-rescue team arrived my neighbor had died.

    The hospital doc attempted to comfort me by saying the heart attack was massive and my efforts were late in the deal ... that situation has always haunted me.

  6. I am going to be much more aware of this in the future, though I am not one to walk away and have been threatened in the past.

    I'm going to post a link to this.

  7. I was out with my Jeep club a couple of weeks ago and a motorcyclist crashed and broke his arm and collarbone, in a fairly deep canyon miles from pavement that was utterly inaccessible to medical personnel. One of his friends rode for help, ran into the tail end of our line of Jeeps, related the tale, and the call went out on our radio relay "Do we have medical personnel?" Yep, we did, a nurse and a paramedic complete with medical bag. So we turned three of the Jeeps around and sent them back to help (including a Jeep Grand Cherokee to serve as a makeshift ambulance if needed -- we divided its contents between the rest of the column so there'd be sufficient space in the back to rest the person if so required), and pulled off to the side so that emergency traffic could get back. So our guys set and splinted the dude's arm and made a makeshift rig to help stabilize the collarbone, and then hauled him via the makeshift ambulance out to pavement, where one of our *other* Jeeps had already made it and used a cell phone to call for emergency assistance, which met us there. The paramedics were somewhat surprised to find him already pretty much readied for transport, but were more upset that he refused the helicopter that they'd called and instead requested to be taken to the nearest hospital by ground ambulance. But his vitals were stable and he was awake and aware, so (shrug). Eventually they hauled him off.

    So not *all* societies are like that, just some. My guess is that as Jeepers we're accustomed to having to help each other over and around the obstacles in our path, and so it's second nature to do so for someone else too. But (shrug).

    - Badtux the Sociology Penguin

  8. Not sure how I would react, haven't been tested yet. Maybe everyone else is thinking a hero will step up?

  9. @BadTux, slightly different situation -- the injured person had someone actively seeking help. Bystander effect isn't unique to any one society, culture, or place in time; if it was, there wouldn't be a parable about the Good Samaritan.


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