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Bystander apathy – explains why people at accidents or emergencies do nothing

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Recently a motor vehicle accident occurred and according to reports, bystanders did not help the victim(s), but rather took pictures and stood around in excitement. Why did this occur? Why did bystanders not help?

Baron, Bascomber & Byrne (2008) suggested that in an emergency sometimes people rush to help and at other times “witnesses to an emergency stand around and do nothing; they stand by while victims suffer or perhaps even die” (p. 312). {{more}}Yet, it seems that common sense would dictate that the more people that are present at the scene of an accident, the more people would be willing to help. However, this is not the case according to Darley and Latane (1968), two psychologists who conducted research about this phenomenon, due to a murder which occurred in New York City in the early 1960s and which became famous as a result.

The story is as follows: a young woman named Kitty Genovese “was assaulted by a man in a location where many people could see and hear what was going on. All they had to do was look through their windows. Despite the fact that the attacker continued to assault the victim for many minutes, and even left and then returned to continue the assault later, not a single person reported the crime to the police. When the news of this tragic crime hit the media, there was much speculation about the widespread selfishness and indifference of people in general, and especially of people who were living in big cities” (Baron et al 2008, p.312).

These researchers found that the reason people did not help in an emergency was due to a social psychological concept known as ‘diffusion of responsibility’, also known as the ‘bystander effect’ or ‘bystander apathy’. Diffusion of responsibility suggests that the greater the number of witnesses at the scene of an emergency the less likely the victims are to receive help. This is because each person that is present feels less responsible to do something because he or she feels that someone else will do it. The victim might also receive help if there are only a few persons present. On the other hand, if only one person is present at the scene of an emergency, that individual is most likely to help, because he or she feels responsible since there is no one else around.

In addition to these factors, each bystander must decide if something unusual is happening, if it is an emergency or not, whether or not to help, if he or she has the knowledge to help, then make the decision to help, and then help.

There are also other factors that contribute to the bystanders not assisting in an accident or emergency, including ambiguity and cohesiveness. Ambiguity refers to the sense of feeling unknown in a crowd, so the individual thinks (consciously or unconsciously) that if I do not assist, no one will know because no one here knows me. Cohesiveness means feeling a part of a united whole. So, during that incident and for that brief period, individuals who may never have met before, subconsciously bond together; looking in awe at the sight together, talking together, exclaiming together, and so on. So, if one person does nothing, everyone else is likely to do nothing – because they feel like a united whole, moving together (or not), and in synchrony.

So, in the scenario above, individuals may have stood by without helping because each expected that someone else would help, resulting in ‘bystander apathy’ (no one doing anything to help).

The bystander effect has also been complicated by our present ‘gadget-age’, in which many individuals are excessively attached to their telephones, tablets, ipads, and the like, and are constantly on social media: Facebook, Skype, Instagram, Whatsapp and others. By and large we have also learned the effectiveness of capturing the moment with these same gadgets, producing newsworthy items that have often had great success and gone ‘viral’ and by so doing our behaviour has been rewarded and reinforced. So, it is possible that individuals also wanted to ensure that they captured the moment, without realizing that this would be at the expense of the victims.

With the awareness of the ‘bystander effect’, I propose that we bear the following in mind, so that we are ready to act in the event of an emergency:

1. Know that I am responsible to do my part in order to save a life in the event of an

emergency, regardless of who else is present.

2. Know that there is no qualification needed for calling the police or calling an ambulance, which I should do regardless of who else might do it.

3. Know that I do not have to know first aid in order to lift a tree branch from off someone.

4. Know that it is okay to ask someone, “Are you okay” and to give some reassurance that help is on the way.

5. I should never think of an emergency as ‘excitement’.

6. I should stand back and give way to the professional team when they arrive.

Need help with relationship and other problems? Ask DYNACII’s Life Coach, Dr Adams, a licensed clinical psychologist. Please note that all correspondence to the Life Coach is confidential and the cases presented are modified in order to maintain the anonymity of each writer. Dynamic Action Centre International Inc (DYNACII) is a non-governmental organization, committed to social and spiritual empowerment. For more information on DYNACII please visit: http://www.dynacii.com

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