Bystander effect

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(HOST) Today is the anniversary of a sad event in American urban history, and it reminds commentator Peter Gilbert of the power of a group to influence individuals’ opinions, attitudes, and actions – consciously or unconsciously.

(GILBERT) On this day in 1964 twenty-nine-year-old Kitty Genovese was brutally stabbed to death on the street near her home in Queens, New York. Thirty-eight neighbors heard her cries for help over a half-hour period, and none of them called the police. It wasn’t so much her horrific murder that shocked the nation so, as it was the inaction of so many apparently normal, decent people. What has our society come to, people asked.

The event was taken to be an expression of alienated modern man’s reluctance to get involved. But scientists concluded that it was also an example of the bystander effect, a psychological phenomenon that causes people to be less likely to intervene in an emergency when others are present than when they are alone. People don’t act partly because they think someone else will act. There’s a diffusion of personal responsibility.

In other cases of bystander effect, when people are standing around watching a situation unfold, people’s inaction causes others to not act as well because – and here’s the really disturbing part – their understanding of the nature and seriousness of the situation is influenced by how others react.

In the 1950s psychology researcher Solomon Ash asked students to participate in a “vision test” – to compare four straight lines on a card and say which was the longest and which were the same length. The differences in length weren’t subtle; the correct answers were obvious, but many participants were willing to change their answer when other students (who were actually working for the professor) argued for an incorrect answer. In other words, the expressed opinions of others – like the inaction of other bystanders – was enough to cause participants to doubt and deny the reality they saw right before their eyes.

This is scary stuff. Of course, we know that humans are social beings – emotional as well as rational. But to realize that our perception or
understanding of reality itself is affected by the reactions of other people is enough to make the ground seem to shift beneath you.

What can we do about our tendency to be overly influenced by others? The most important thing is to be aware of that potential. Studies show that informing people about the bystander effect makes them more likely to help. It’s also empowering to know that when we feel like we’re the only person in a group who thinks a certain way, that’s almost
invariably not the case; it’s just that no one’s had the gumption to speak up or to stand up and act.

While we should remain open to other’s opinions, we should also be appropriately skeptical of others’ action or lack of it when it seems misguided; we should be dubious of statements that fly in the face of experience. We need to retain the courage and energy to think, feel, and act for ourselves.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

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