Bystanders – Heroes on Stand-By?


Kitty Genovese

Kitty Genovese

The recent case of Chinese toddler, Yue Yue, who was not only hit by two vans but was ignored in her plight by eighteen passers-by, raises again the issue of how we can stand by and watch as horrible things happen.

When things like this happen in other countries we say – This could never happen here.

We tell ourselves that no matter how bad our societies are, we wouldn’t let such horror happen without trying to help.

The thing is – that’s not true.

The Yue Yue case is most likely nothing to do with Chinese society and everything to do with a social psychological phenomenon known as The Bystander Effect.

This reaction, which we put down to our materialistic, modern attitudes and our growing selfishness, is probably not so much associated with modern life as with ancient, instinctive survival behaviours.  There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the more people present when something bad happens, the less chance there is that anybody will help.  In other words – we do whatever the herd does.

This phenomenon was first documented in 1964, when twenty-eight year old Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered in her New York neighbourhood.  Though thirty-seven people heard Kitty call for help during the attack (which lasted a full half hour) only one person responded by calling the police.

By the time help arrived, Kitty Genovese was dead.

The controversy as a result of the Kitty Genovese murder gave rise to a number of studies and led to the formulating of the theory of The Bystander Effect.

But there is a little known feature of the Bystander effect and that is that it appears to be very easy to overcome.

Simply recognising the possibility that anyone (me, you – anyone) may not intervene in an emergency can mean that we do intervene.  Just that much knowledge can make a difference.

Also, it is well known that, in general, when bystanders are specifically asked for help –Hey man in the blue sweater – they tend to respond positively.   It’s as if a consciousness of ourselves as individuals seems to generally bring with it not just a myriad personal likes and dislikes and idiosyncrasies but also an awakening of moral and ideological beliefs and even a willingness to help others.

So, here’s the question I always ask myself when thinking about this phenomenon – does the war and poverty and violence and hatred we see all around us on our planet flourish because we suffer from a global Bystander Effect?

It would seem logical that this might be the case.  After all, if having six or seven people witness an emergency slows down or destroys our individual reaction and impulse to help others, what happens when 6 or 7 billion people see the same thing?

How can we stop being global bystanders?

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