Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Bystander Effect is Ugly

I'm not sure why I watched the video. I was really, truly hoping that it was fake. That I would see a hint of digital manipulation, something that would indicate a falsehood. Instead, it was an ugly truth from start to finish.

You've probably seen it. If you have not, I can only implore you not to. The honesty of humanity is as un-pretty as it can get. I think a written description captures the horror enough. A little toddler steps out into a road. A driver sees her, does not serve to avoid her, and hits her. His front wheels crush her small body. He pauses and, a few seconds later, runs her over again with his back wheels.

As the little girl lays dying in the street, more than a dozen people walk or ride by her. Another truck drives over her. Finally a shopkeeper pulls the child from the road and seconds later, her mother enters the scene, scooping the child up and rushing her to the hospital. She survived a few days and then died.

People have - rightfully so - reacted with horror. I've seen enough racist reactions to last me a lifetime. Somehow the ethnicity, the country of origin, is a bigger indicator of human indifference? Human nature is not always palatable. It bypasses culture, ingratiates itself in our very DNA.

We all like to think ourselves superior to this ugliness. None of us are, though. In smaller, less mean ways, we all turn away. I remember once seeing a small brush fire start alongside the highway. Surely, I thought, one of the other hundreds - nay thousands - of drivers winding up the valley would call it in. But they must have thought that as well. Less than an hour later, as I drove back down the same highway, the blaze had grown. I called it in. I was the first to do so. No one was hurt, but imagine if that fire had started in someone's home and everyone in the neighborhood expected another person would make the first call.

In psychology, this is called a bystander effect. The likelihood we will do something different than others decreases significantly the more people are present.

I remember last year the story of a man who saved a woman from a robbery. He ended up stabbed. Two dozen people saw the man bleeding and no one stopped to help him. One person took a photo. Another person shook the man, saw the blood, and walked off. It would be an hour and twenty minutes before someone called the police. By that time, the man had died.

And the reaction! I would never do that! Oh how awful, those people not helping! What is wrong with those people? As if everyone interviewed wouldn't have done the same damn thing in that situation.

I like to think I am above all that. I hope I am. But study after study has shown...well most of us aren't. Our likelihood of intervening or reporting decreases significantly if no one else is doing it.

I learned from my experience with the brush fire. A year later, I saw a vehicle on fire. I was the only vehicle to stop. But the moment I stopped, so did other people. Embarrassingly, I had stopped because I thought I had my vehicle fire extinguisher but I actually didn't. So no great heroics, but I did call 911.

Hopefully all of us who are horrified by what happened in China will think of the other ways we don't react. Maybe it's the parent in the grocery store who screams obscenities at their child. Maybe it's the person kicking their dog in the street. Maybe it's the slumped over form you just aren't sure is conscious. Maybe it's the scream you heard but couldn't tell if it was a cry for help or something else. Maybe it's a dog running loose.

Whatever the situation, asking for help is always easier and a better bet than not asking at all.

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