The ‘Bystander Effect’ and Why We Look Away

When something terrible happens to an individual, why do witnesses freeze up or choose inaction, especially when in a group? One such story to gain major media attention was that of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese, brutally murdered in 1964 in Queens, New York.

According to initial reports, as many as 37 of her neighbors heard or saw Genovese being attacked in the alley near her home; later reports called that number into question. Still, her killing sparked the first studies of what’s come to be known as the Bystander Effect -? a sociological phenomenon whereby the more people present who are able to help, the lower the likelihood that any one of them will actually step up and try.

We assume that as long as others are around, somebody will surely help – forgetting that each of us is a somebody.

This happened again last year on a crowded train platform in Montreal, where dozens of people were close enough to see Radil Hebrich struck in the head by an oncoming train. Yet the 59-year-old was ignored, left unconscious but alive, for more than 15 minutes before anyone actually took the step of calling for help. He died, and in a new report issued this month, the coroner suggested that if Hebrich had received help sooner he probably wouldn’t have. That’s pretty haunting, if you ask me.

So, are most of us bad people, selfishly going about our business while ignoring the suffering of others? I don’t think so. I believe we simply underestimate both how capable we are, and how connected we are to each other. We assume that as long as others are around, somebody will surely help – forgetting that each of us is a somebody.

The two key issues we could work on, in order to lower the tragic incidence of bystander inaction, are a) recognizing that every stranger around us is a somebody, and b) remembering that we are, too. If we allowed ourselves to feel closer to that often nameless victim, and identify with their humanity, would we do more? Would we have a more active response? Just try imagining how you’d react if you knew the person in need, and you’ll see what I mean.

And as we widen our sense that everybody is a somebody, we should extend that status to ourselves: We’re all more capable of caring for others, and positively impacting their lives, than we give ourselves credit for. If we really trusted that truth, we’d be less likely to wait for other candidates to make the first move to help.

Rather than feel guilty for all that we fail to do, perhaps we should work on feeling better about who we are, and trust more fully what we’re capable of doing. It’s not that we’re bad people. It’s that we often fail to recognize how good we are. If we did, we’d know with certainty that we’re the ones for whom that victim is waiting, and that if we actively got involved, we really could make a positive difference, perhaps even a lifesaving one.


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