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The Good Samaritan, Eugene DelacroixLast month, Winston Moseley died at the age of 81. His name is not familiar to most yet his death has brought up coverage of the circumstances of his notoriety. Moseley stalked, raped and killed 28 year old Kitty Genovese on a street in Queens, New York in 1964. He was confined in prisons for the next 52 years. This case was made famous for the lack of response from neighbors who heard Kitty’s screams over the course of almost an hour, yet did nothing.


There were some positive outcomes. This horrific crime has been credited with prompting the launch of the nationwide 911 emergency communication system in 1968. It also is said to have contributed to the adoption of Good Samaritan laws that protect bystanders who do try to help those in trouble. Also in the wake of the murder, studies have been conducted to examine why it is that the neighbors choose not to act.


We all hope that faced with an emergency, we would jump in and do the right thing. Clearly, there are many examples where bystanders have stepped in to help another in distress or save a life. Someone drags someone out of a burning car or, pulls someone off train tracks.


But what is the reason when this is not the case? Social scientists have identified what is known as the Bystander effect, defined as “a natural psychological tendency to not take action in an emergency when we are in the presence of others.” The more bystanders are around, the less likely anyone will help. A classic early experiment (Bibb Latané and Judith Rodin, 1969) involved staging a woman in distress. When the subject bystander was alone, seventy percent called out or directly aided the woman. In a group setting, only forty percent of the bystanders offered aid.


One factor in this behavior is termed Diffusion of Responsibility, where we assume someone else will step in, or that they are more qualified to do so. Social referencing comes into play when we allow our interpretation of what others think of us or a situation to inform our decisions and actions.


Recently, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology conducted a study of 5 year old children. There were two scenarios, in both an adult was painting a wall while a group of kids sat nearby in the same room painting individual pictures. The difference was that in the first group, there was a barrier inside the room that physically separated one kid from the others, although they were able to see each other over the partition. In the second scenario, the kids were all together. In both cases, the non-subject kids were in on the study, ‘confederates’ sworn to inaction. The experimenter knocks over a glass of colored water, makes pleas for help, to bring towels.


The fascinating outcome was that almost 100% of the kids who were alone, helped. So too with the kids who were physically separated from the others. But in the case of a regular group, only 50% of the tested kids went to help out.  The research sheds light onto how we first become susceptible to this behavior and the researchers
write, that “interventions to promote helpfulness in bystander-type situations should address the issue of diffusion of responsibility early in development.”


In any event, the problem of inaction is not behind us. As recently as this month, a man in Dongguan China watched a young woman being stabbed to death in an alley below his window. Rather than call the police he picked up his phone to video the attack which of course has gone viral. By the time an ambulance arrived, the victim was dead.


Closer to home, a few years ago in Seattle, a young woman was beaten and stomped in front of three security officers who made no move to intervene, citing they had standing orders to not get involved but rather observe and report. One wonders if the officers felt they had legal justification for the psychological effect. See video below:


Surely an important component to winning the fight against escalating criminal and terrorist violence around the globe, is that each of us accept responsibility for being informed, aware and engaged for ourselves and our community.