On July 4th, 2015 Kevin Joseph Sutherland, a former congressional intern, was killed aboard a Washington D.C. Metro train in a horrific crime after being repeatedly punched and stabbed in the chest, abdomen, arms, back, side and arms. He suffered 30-40 cuts and stab wounds, fatally piercing his heart and lungs.
Witnesses who were riding on the train sat frozen in horror, too terrified to step in and attempt to stop the assailant.
The Kitty Genovese Slaying
Afterward pundits reflected back on a similar iconic bystander event, 1964 Kitty Genovese slaying in New York and were once again confounded that the numerous bystanders reported having witnessed the Sutherland attack, did nothing to intervene.
According to reflection from the original report of the Kitty Genovese slaying, several of the bystanders thought other witnesses would take the responsibility to call the police or had already done so and, therefore, reasoned they did not need to respond. A newspaper report, later criticized for being imprecise, accused 38 law abiding citizens of doing nothing to help Kitty out- not one of them calling the police- and when asked why, “I did not want to get involved,”stated one witness and another offered, “I was tired.”
The 1964 event, sparked a furor and transformative effect on the nation, spurring psychologists to study the phenomenon, dubbing it the “Genovese’s or “Bystanders effect.”
The Bystanders phenomenon was later studied and established as a concept by two social psychologists, Bibb Latane and John Darley in 1968.
The question the duo raised was, “Why do people who are so willing to help in a non-emergency situation don’t in emergency situations?”
Diffusion of responsibility
According to Psychology Today, “Latané and Darley attributed the bystander effect to the perceived diffusion of responsibility (onlookers are more likely to intervene if there are few or no other witnesses) and social influence (individuals in a group monitor the behavior of those around them to determine how to act).”
And what happens when there is a single witness? The experiments conducted by Latane and Darley showed that people are more likely to help out if they are alone (70%), far less if there is another witness (40%) and the least reactive or likely to offer assistance if another witness does not react or is “passive” during the event (7%).
“Safety in numbers” may not apply
The conclusion we can deduct from the bystander effect is to not have a false sense of security in a crowd. Should you lay injured on the street your odds of survival and your chance of receiving help is greatly diminished, according to the social phenomenon, if you are surrounded by a crowd than when only one witness is standing next to you.
A society of detach-ees
Some believe that fundamentally society has lost its moral compass as part of a larger trend toward becoming detach-ees. More people are content living alone, or at best within a small social circle. Especially, in an era when many of us have traded digital relationships for face to face communications, considered head and shoulders above for development of social skills, empathy and pro-social behavior.
Overcoming the bystander effect
It is important to bear in mind that self-less concern for others does not always come naturally. The behavior of altruism, or the practice of self-less concern for the well-being of others, without the expectation of reciprocity or compensation for oneself, has confounded theologians.
How does it makes evolutionary sense? Can we pass on our altruistic genes if we risk dying off such “evolutionary gems” in an effort to save another? Why are some of us are more altruistic than others? Can we be both an altruist and a Darwinist-survival of the fittest, within the same breath?
I would like to believe the powerful lure, that we all have the capability of altruism, that compassion can be cultivated and that by observing others lending a helping hand to someone who has fallen would have a demonstrative and powerful effect on others and with that the commensurate responsibility to be active bystanders.
Be an active bystander
How can you “step up” and help out? Unless your a police officer, you would not want to intervene if someone was being attacked or the environment was dangerous or risk becoming a victim yourself. Instead, call 911 and be observant of everything around you to give as much information as you can to the police.
If it is safe to do so remain with the victim until the police arrive. A victim of a crime is likely to be confused, afraid, dazed and unable to remember important details related to the crime. They also may be too confused to even know where they are.
If the victim is seriously injured, minutes matter in saving a life. The best way you can help, if you are not trained or comfortable in providing CPR, is to describe the type of injuries you see and your location to 911. The more information you provide, the faster and better-equipped emergency responders will be in assessing the level and resources needed to respond.
All it takes is one person to take control to overcome the bystander effect.
If you are in a crowd identify someone near you- point and say, “You in the white shirt, call 911 and you in the brown jacket, go get help.” Shout out, “Does anyone know CPR?”
In a perfect world, we would all be trained to respond to an emergency. Everyone would know CPR, and we all would have the perfect confidence, altruism, and the heroism to step in and save the day. But it doesn’t have to be a perfect world, it just has to be one person who will step forward and redefine the bystander effect. What would you do?