Home 2018 Collegiate Magazine The bystander effect

The bystander effect

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Bystanders record an altercation on their smartphones. (Najd Ayari/The Collegiate)

By Deanna Bergers

When there is an incident, why are people in today’s society drawn to videotaping it? Whether it’s a fight, an interaction with the police or a simple proposal in public, many people pull out their cellphones and document the moment. Would this have been the reaction decades ago, before cellphones were commonplace? What causes this reaction?

This reaction is partially due to a term used in psychology called the “bystander effect.” This phenomenon says that people are less likely to help during a crisis if others are present. The responsibility is diffused onto others who look like they’re more likely or more able to help in the situation.  

It’s a given fact that everyone has been a bystander before. But how many of us have made the decision to go as far as recording the incident? I did so recently, at a local restaurant in Grand Rapids where the employees broke out into an argument. At first, the situation seemed funny. This was the moment where I pulled my phone out and began to videotape the disagreement while I left the camera on my face to capture my reaction. The argument was contained and strictly verbal until one employee was pushed too far and had to be held back by the rest of the crew. I recognized the point when it was too serious, and ended my recording, but what caused me to feel the need to document it anyway? Is it the fear that if something does go wrong, there will be proof? The video was not posted on social media, so the rest of the world never saw it. It was a pointless choice to film a situation where people were in a vulnerable state where I could have intervened and potentially de-escalated the situation, but remained as a bystander to the incident.  

While societies in the past didn’t have the luxury of having cellphones to record incidents, the bystander effect was still happening. The story of Kitty Genovese is well known among psychologists, and involved the murder of 28-year-old Catherine “Kitty” Genovese outside of her apartment in Queens, New York. According to a New York Times article following the murder in 1964, 38 people witnessed Genovese’s death and not a single bystander called the police or offered to help her. Her tragic death is what coined the term “bystander effect.” Western Michigan University psychology professor David Sottile used his expertise in behavior analysis regarding the subject in an email interview to provide some insight on the bystander effect and its significance on our society.

“This incident was important for introducing a law, the Good Samaritan Act, which was designed to increase the likelihood of assisting in an emergency situation,” Sottile stated. “There has also been research done that shows that the bystander effect is more pronounced when there are even more people around.”

The Good Samaritan Act gives legal protection for those who offer their help to people in grave incidents. Whether they’re injured or in some sort of danger, the samaritan will be protected from liability if there is some sort of error in their intent of saving the person. The creation of this act makes us hopeful that more people will choose to offer their assistance and help those in need.

Most people don’t offer their help because they assume someone else will do it. They don’t call 911 because they assume someone else already did. Or, they don’t jump in because they’re afraid to be hurt themselves. The ABC television show “What Would You Do?” documents the reactions of people in controversial situations and shows their decision to either act or simply walk away.

“I hope that the consequences of this increased monitoring will also decrease the instances of police misconduct,” Sottile said. “But, as they have not been effective at increasing the likelihood of aversive consequences for these actions, it does not seem like (it).”

While Sottile mentioned the lack of consequences in the instances regarding police misconduct, there are cases where bystanders who recorded tragic events were reprimanded. There was a case in Lorain, Ohio where a bystander recorded a fatal car crash involving two teenagers. When the bystander, Paul Pelton, arrived on the scene, he recorded the graphic crash and mocked the victims instead of offering his help and potentially saving the life of the teenager who didn’t make it. Pelton was thus sentenced to 30 days in jail for vehicular trespassing and disorderly conduct. The Lorain Police Department explained the charges in a news release and stated that it is against the law to “trespass into a person’s vehicle criminally and without permission for the seemingly singular cause of filming a young man’s dying moments, for profit.”

It seems as if everything is documented today and posted online for the world to see. There are people losing their lives due to the lack of bystander intervention, and this has been occurring for decades. There is no evidence linking any hormones or biological factors that explain why humans tend to lack the ability to help in certain situations, and it can only be explained so far by the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility. We can only recognize that not everyone will step up in public crises, adjust our fear of being harmed and take action.

We especially see this today in regards to interactions with the police. With the uprising in police misconduct, many who fear for their lives in those situations document the event in case it all goes terribly wrong. The stories of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner and many others were documented on the bystanders’ cellphones and posted online. This has increased the use of body cameras among police forces across the country. This appears to be the part of the bystander effect where those who are present are too afraid to intervene. What happens when the people you’re supposed to call in these situations are the ones committing the wrongdoing? There is a sense of fear instilled among people around the world and it is a huge factor in how we react in these sort of situations.