Are We Terrible People?

By The Blackbird (Jay Black) (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Imagine you wake up to a woman’s screams one late night. Alerted, you instantly rush to your apartment’s window and poke your head outside. The sight you witness sends shiver down your spine: the only source of light outside is a street light, under which a woman lies writhing on the ground, covered in a pool of blood, and you notice silhouette of a man sprinting away from the spot.

But that’s not all – apart from you, many people from your own building and the opposite ones are also leaning outwards from their windows and looking down at the woman with a deadpan stare. She’s dazed with pain and crying for help. You feel uneasy and think to yourself ‘Why is nobody coming down for her help?’ just when another thought strikes your mind. ‘Or perhaps, may be, someone’s already phoned the authorities.’

Thus you stand there frozen, torn between these two thoughts. Though the condition of the woman tortures you, you reassure yourself by glancing at others’ poker faces and believing at least one of them must have acted by now. In the meantime, life is rapidly gushing out of the woman the same way her blood is flowing out. Soon enough, she stops crying for help. Still, there are no sounds or lights of any sirens in sight.

You are squirming within, and her stillness fills you with strange ominousness. Yet you stay frozen in your spot, hoping for the best like everybody else watching her, until the woman succumbs to death and your false hopes dash to the ground.

Do you think this scenario is realistic?

If you answered no, I’d like to tell you that this is exactly what happened on March 13, 1964, in Queens borough in New York City. A young woman named Catherine (Kitty) Genovese was returning home from work when an unknown assailant attacked her, not just once, but thrice, and in front of over thirty people who watched the gruesome episode from their windows for almost half an hour, and not one of them called cops until it was all over.

If you disagreed with the question posed in the title of today’s post, you’ll be thinking about revising your opinion now.

Copyrights of this image belong to the New York Times
On the fateful night of her murder, Kitty Genovese fell prey to indifference

Seriously, though, what do you think why those people failed to act? There were thirty-seven of them and only one attacker. At least one of them could have informed the authorities. It’s not like telephones didn’t exist in those times. Better yet, if even a handful of them came to Kitty’s rescue armed with just basebats and rolling pins, they could’ve saved her. Do you think they were reluctant to act because they were scared to get involved in fuss with the law? Or were they cold-hearted enough not to care about a person being murdered in front of their eyes?

That’s what the common folk thought, anyway. The inaction of those witnesses only fueled the perception that city people are callous and selfish. American media and people alike chalked it up to insensitive attitude of the big-cities towards their individual members.

Though apathy certainly seems to be the culprit at first sight, there was even something more subtle at play. At least to two psychologists it appeared to so. When the whole nation was busy deriding city fellows, they quietly conducted an experiment to confirm their theory. They had a NY college student fake epileptic seizure to different people, with only one variation: the number of witnesses at the moment. In case only one individual was present, nearly 85% of the times the student got help. But in case where a larger crowd was involved, only 31% percent of the times the student received any aid.

So what’s actually going on here? The two psychologists, named Bibb Latane and John Darley, repeated this experiment several times with slight variations (for example, the epilepsy-faking student was replaced by a tumbling woman in one) and concluded that whenever people were present in larger number, each of them felt something called diffusion of responsibility. Remember when I snuck in the second, comforting thought in your head in the scene I created above? The very thought of somebody else stepping forward to help (which is essentially the same chorus running through everybody else’s head, too) holds us back. This situation is also known as pluralistic ignorance, which leads to the bystander effect, which is basically a fancy psychological term relating to an age-old adage of too many cooks ruining a broth (or simply saying they’re as good as none when together). Remember, even Good Samaritan was solo when he helped the poor fella on the road.

By رمزي زودة (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Bystander effect – Too many cooks spoil the broth
Apart from this misplaced sense of responsibility, however, another dominant factor Latane and Darley found was ambiguity over the nature of emergency itself. A person involved in a fiery car crash is more likely to get help sooner than a person who’s suffered from a paralysis attack and appears to be simply sitting on park bench. If the bystanders cannot evaluate the gravity of the situation correctly, they certainly won’t be responding the way they should’ve been.

Another factor is group cohesiveness, which is another sophisticated-sounding word for simply the idea of level of familiarity with other people. The more you’re acquainted with someone (for example, if they happen to be your friend or family member), the more you’re likely to help them than a random stranger, in case they fall prey to some misfortune. That’s why Peter Parker was the only one who came through the mob to Uncle Ben’s side after he was shot down in the first Spiderman movie (Sam Raimi version).

And now back to the question often hollered by many: are all city people insensitive?

Using our knowledge of bystander effect, we can show that’s not necessarily the case. First, urban areas are more likely to be overcrowded (if you don’t agree, you definitely should check out New York City’s subways), so bystander effect is much more prominent. Second, city life is fast compared to the rural one. Sounds like cliche, but it’s tried-and-true; everyone is in such a hurry that hardly anyone has the time to pay attention to any emergency (unless it happens to be Godzilla romping in the streets). Lastly, people in cities often know only fraction of fellow residents, which results in reduced cohesivesness. In more rustic settings, these metropolitan vices are largely absent, that’s why village folk are often thought more human than their oft-accused urban counterparts.

Next question: what should you do in case you yourself are in a victim situation involving a lot of strange bystanders?

The best way to get help is to point to a particular individual and call him or her out and ask for help. While it sounds like burdening an unknown person with your responsibility, it’s the most effective solution to get proper attention and aid, or you’ll get only the former but not the latter.

What happened to Kitty was terrible and outrageous, that’s true. But she wasn’t the only victim of neglect. Many more cases have come along since her death in which the witnesses barely acted to prevent a tragedy, like Alex Casian, a two-year old stomped to death by his own father in the presence of several people, including friends and family. The shock and awe in cases like these arise not so much from the brutal ways employed by killers but by people’s seeming indifference. But I hope now you can see the bigger picture, too.

That’s not to say bystander effect is acceptable, though. If your fellow being is in distress, you shouldn’t wait for others to take the initiative. For the victim, difference of few seconds can mean difference between life and death.

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