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Standing by as Others Suffer is, Unfortunately, Nothing New

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

If you have ever heard the song "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins, you are probably aware of all the legends and myths behind the song. Although the singer wrote this in the wake of his divorce, the lyrics reach out and grab you, and it is easy to envision someone witnessing a horrible crime, only to see the criminal again years later.

Well, if you told me you were drowning
I would not lend a hand
I've seen your face before my friend
But I don't know if you know who I am
Well, I was there and I saw what you did
I saw it with my own two eyes
So you can wipe off that grin, I know where you've been
It's all been a pack of lies

I'm sure we can all think of situations in our own lives where there have been people on the sidelines watching someone else struggling and doing nothing. In fact, this situation is all too common, according to psychology.

I was reminded of this today, when I saw a man trying to lift a bicycle with a small cart attached onto the sidewalk, while struggling to go around a tree, and a truck that had over-parked the sidewalk. He was quick to free the small cart from the trailer hitch of the truck that it had gotten stuck on, but I just stood there, only a few yards away, watching.

I like to think of he would have been struggling longer I would have helped, but who can every really know for certain.

It also begs the question of how long we leave someone suffering if we see it, and stand idly by doing nothing. How long is too long? And, when does it become our responsibility to help someone?

The Bystander Effect

When a crowd gathers around the scene of a crime or other event in which someone is being harmed without doing something, the name for this, in psychological terms is the Bystander Effect. In many instances, there are people standing by watching disastrous events unfolding and doing nothing. It is easy to become paralyzed, or experience a freeze response, in such a situation.

According to Psychology Today,

The bystander effect occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation, against a bully, or during an assault or other crime. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is for any one of them to provide help to a person in distress. People are more likely to take action in a crisis when there are few or no other witnesses present.

This can happen in instances like a schoolyard bully picking a fight, a shooting on the street, a car accident, or many other such events. Often, a large crowd will gather. These days, you may even see people with their camera phones filming what is going on. The murder of George Floyd, which has been in a media spotlight, is one such instance of the bystander effect in action.

There are multiple reasons why people decide to help or intervene when they witness an emergency situation. Some of it has to do with a sense of personal responsibility, which can be unclear when there is a large crowd gathered. People may assume that someone else is going to help, or is more qualified to do so. Naturally, there is also a fear of being harmed oneself upon intervening.

According to Britannica, the thought process that individuals go through when deciding to intervene is defined like this:

According to Latané and Darley, before helping another, a bystander progresses through a five-step decision-making process. A bystander must notice that something is amiss, define the situation as an emergency or a circumstance requiring assistance, decide whether he or she is personally responsible to act, choose how to help, and finally implement the chosen helping behaviour. Failing to notice, define, decide, choose, and implement leads a bystander not to engage in helping behaviour.

Additionally, the more people are present, the less likely that someone will help. This is because people in a crowd have a tendency to feel less personal responsibility than if they were the sole bystander.

In a lot of situations where people are visibly in trouble, the bystander effect goes a long way towards explaining why people don't help others. This is an extremely unfortunate effect, and one that we need to work to combat in our society at large.

The Bystander Effect isn't New

Although we may think of the lack of assistance that is offered to victims these days as a modern happening, this isn't so. People have been socialized in a similar way for generations, and there are many forces at work that we use to help absolve ourselves of any sense of personal responsibility to help others.

You can see the bystander effect in play even as far back as the times of Jesus. This is illustrated by the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which Jesus explains in Luke 10:30-37:

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

In this well-known bible story, there are two men (supposedly moral men of the church in this case) who walked past the man who had been robbed, prior to a stranger stopping to help him. Help doesn't always come from the places you would expect. Often times, the people we entrust with our safety are unable or unwilling to step to the front of a crowd and help others in need.

This is illustrated by the case of the Good Samaritan, as well as the case of George Floyd. In both instances, people who were supposedly of a good standing in society weren't the ones to provide assistance to someone who was obviously in a great need.

We need to take a close look at our own values when we hear stories like this, and resolve on a personal level that we won't be the ones standing by in the wake of a tragedy.

What makes us help?

In our heart of hearts, we all probably hope that we will be the ones to step to the front of the crowd and do something if we are the witness to a horrible crime. And yet, so often, this isn't the case.

When I went to court as a victim of domestic violence, one of the witnesses said that she had often heard us screaming and fighting in the past. And yet, on none of those occasions did that woman come to my assistance. Neither did she pull me aside privately at any time to ask if I was ok.

For some reason, most of us don't feel a sense of personal responsibility to help others in a time of need.

According to Britannica, social factors are more likely to increase help:

If a bystander is physically in a position to notice a victim, factors such as the bystander’s emotional state, the nature of the emergency, and the presence of others can influence his or her ability to realize that something is wrong and that assistance is required. In general, positive moods, such as happiness and contentment, encourage bystanders to notice emergencies and provide assistance, whereas negative moods, such as depression, inhibit helping. However, some negative moods, such as sadness and guilt, have been found to promote helping. In addition, some events, such as someone falling down a flight of stairs, are very visible and hence attract bystanders’ attention. For example, studies have demonstrated that victims who yell or scream receive help almost without fail. In contrast, other events, such as a person suffering a heart attack, often are not highly visible and so attract little attention from bystanders.

It is interesting to note that people screaming for help are more likely to receive it. In these instances, the need is clear. There is no ambiguity to the situation, and the person calling out is clearly in trouble of something going wrong.

Interestingly, according to Greater Good Berkley,

The 2011 meta-analysis of bystander behavior showed that the more dangerous the situation, the more likely each person was to intervene...

This can be another indication that when people don't help, it is because they are uncertain if the person actually needs or wants their help. However, there are some situations where it is clear that someone is in need, and people will step up and do something.

Another factor in whether we help someone or not has to do with situations that evoke empathy in us, or if the situation feels to big for us to make a meaningful contribution. Faced with things like systemic poverty, homelessness, disability, mental health, global warming and more, people are less likely to be motivated to help.

Big problems need big answers. They require large groups of people to work together. However, people are more likely to help on a one on one basis.

Another factor that comes into play here is called the Identifiable Victim Effect. According to The Decision Lab,

The identifiable victim effect describes our likelihood to be more willing to help single, identifiable victims because we feel a greater emotional response to their stories, than the likelihood that we will be willing to help a large number of people who are suffering. 

If you see something tangible you can do to help someone obviously in need, this is what makes you more likely to help. For example, people in general would be more likely to donate money to a friend's Go Fund Me to buy a new car when theirs broke down than they would be to donate to a charitable cause like Global Warming.

The news desensitizes us to violence, shows us a world full of problems, and does very little in the way of providing us with tangible solutions that we can implement in our own lives. We don't help, often, because we don't know how to help, or which cause is the most important. We are on overload.

Final Thoughts

In writing about some of my own personal struggles in this past week, I have received an outpouring of support. This was a huge contrast to when I had previously written about things like global poverty or global warming.

When I am struggling, you put a face to the suffering. You hear a personal story. You care. And guys, I love that! I was honestly surprised at all the kind words that I received about my mental health issues, dealing with Medicaid and losing my job. You guys are super sweet, and I am immeasurably grateful.

This makes me think of the oft offered phrase when it comes to making a positive impact on the world:

Think Globally, Act Locally.

In fact, this motto is a mirror of our psychology. We are more likely to help someone that we can see up close and personal. This is why people will give a homeless person a dollar when they are standing on the street corner. It is why people will intervene in an emergency. It is why we will console our friends going through hard times.

We help the people we can see. People starving to death across the world seem far away. We don't empathize with them because we don't see them. This is what makes it important for each of us to develop a greater sense of compassion for others within our own hearts, teach our children to intervene in instances of bullying, and develop a wider worldview. As we learn to view everyone as a part of our human family and to see similarities instead of differences, the more we can make the world a better place in a systemic way.


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