4 September 2012

Despite 30 People Witnessed a Crime No One Intervened… It’s Not DESPITE; It’s BECAUSE! (1)

Did you ever hear or read in the news a title like “Despite the presence of many witnesses, no one called the police or intervened”? Have you felt a bit of outrage when learning about such an event? This is a clear case of “It’s Not DESPITE; It’s BECAUSE!”

There are some real life events that one can read about in various books when something bad happened in the plain sight of many other people and no one did anything. Perhaps the best known (at least in the psychology literature) case is Catherine Susan "Kitty" Genovese (you can read here on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Kitty_Genovese ).

In brief, what happened is that this lady was murdered in front of about 40 people and no one did anything. There are many other cases similar to this one. I remember about one in Liverpool where one child was abducted, tortured and killed by two other boys and many people saw the two older kids carrying the younger one, but no one did anything. Of course these extreme cases get a lot of media attention and coverage, but there are many more instances of less violent crimes such as theft that are committed in the presence of many witnesses and, in a nut shell, no one does anything about it.

I remember a story on the TV news when someone tried to steal his own bike for 2 hours in the center of Bucharest and no one did anything about it. Note: Unlike in The Netherlands, stealing a bike in Romania is not socially acceptable (however, stealing money from the public budget is).

The most usual reaction to this kind of information – despite the fact that the crime happened in the plain sight of 30 people, no one did anything – is to be horrified of the ill character of the witnesses. The most common reaction goes something like this:

What’s wrong with these people? WHO are they?? Huh?They have no heart! They are all jerks and they should be hanged! What kind of world do we live in?

After taking a glass of water (or beer) and cooling down a bit, let’s switch on reasoning. Who are these people? They can be basically anyone. These crimes don’t happen in a mental hospital where most degenerate people tend to cluster. They take place in the neighborhood, at the shopping mall, in a parking lot, on a bus and even in the center of a city like Bucharest which by the way is much safer than it is believed to be.

So, if the witnesses are not hand-picked from the less than 1% of the population with severe psychological problems, what is that drives this behavior or more exactly the lack of action?

Before giving the answer to that question, I want to point out the main fallacy in the outrage generated by “despite 30 people watching no one did anything”. People who hear about these events assume that people behave the same when they are alone and when they are in a group (even a group formed perfectly randomly). The people that are outraged see 30 individuals, but not a group of 30 people.

I guess, you figured out what the explanation is. It is BECAUSE 30 people witnessed a crime that no one intervened. If there would be only 1 witness then he or she would intervene or at least call the police (112 by the way).

What is happening here is a bit more complex phenomenon, but it can be simplified into two big elements. First, realizing that there is a crime or other bad thing going on and Second, finding the appropriate response to the new situation. These two components are not independent; rather they are very strongly linked.

Let’s take the first component. What seems clear post-factum such as a murder or the theft of a bike is not that clear while it happens, especially from a distance. Of course, if anyone would see a lynching happening one meter in front of them, it would be clear. At the same time these crimes or bad things are not so clear. 

For example if anyone would pass by someone who is trying to force a bike lock, what would go through that person’s mind? At least for one thing, our observer should in fact observe the act of forcing the lock, which is not as easy as it would seem. Think about when you are in a hurry to get to a job interview, how much of what’s happening on the street do you observe? Not that much. Now, assuming that our witness would actually observe the act, what would be his first thought about it? “Oh.. the poor guy lost his key and now needs to pick the lock”.

Similarly, if one hears a scream from a neighboring house why assume that there is any violence such as someone smashing the other’s fingers with a hammer happening. It could have been the TV, or maybe they have wild sex… yeah… that’s it! Or maybe it’s just the “perfectly normal” conjugal release of negative energies through screaming once in a while.

Truly, bad things happen not that often. Yes, we do here on the news about crimes and watch crime series, but in day to day life we encounter much fewer “bad things”. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that what you see is nothing serious.

Making a brief step sideway, do you remember how many analysts have explained how the last financial crisis + big recession came to be AFTER it occurred? On the other hand there were very few voices that PREDICTED the economic “F*ck up”.

Now, coming back to the bad things happening in plain sight, I guess you agree that most of the times it’s not that easy to realize that something really bad is happening. More so, imagine that you would be a good citizen and go to your screaming neighbor’s door and ring the bell. Then your neighbor answers the door with very few clothes on and with a visible excitation on his face… would you feel bad? As far as you can tell you’ve just interrupted amazing sex…

To sum up the first component of “despite 30 people witnessed, no one did anything” it’s not as easy as it seems to spot a bad thing happening. Yes! It is obvious once it happened and you KNOW it happened, but it’s much harder to see it WHEN it happens.

The second component that explains “despite 30 people witnessed, no one did anything” is called the “bystander effect” and it occurs even when the bad thing is obvious. Let’s imagine that Joe is a normal regular church going moral guy. Joe goes on holyday and stays in line to buy a ticket for a museum. There are 3 lines of people waiting to buy a ticket and just in front of Joe, a guy cuts the purse of the lady in front of him and takes her wallet. Joe is not the only guy to witness this, other people see it also and everyone does nothing. Do you think that our church going regular guy would do anything? Regardless of what you thought the answer is that about 8.5 out of 10 Joes would simply do nothing.

In the case presented above, there is no doubt that something wrong is happening – a thief steals a wallet. However, our Joe will do nothing simply because there are other people around that saw what happened and they did nothing. Humans tend to mimic each other’s behavior and more so when in a group. 

The saying of “when in Rome, do like the Romans do” is the essence of this behavior. After all, WHY stand out? If everyone else does something, then it means that that is the “appropriate” behavior. For sure these people know better, right? This is most applicable when the “Joe” is in an unfamiliar environment such as Joe being a tourist or just moved to a new neighborhood.
In a nut shell: in a novel situation we infer the appropriate behavior  by observing the people around us.

Another element that is involved here is “deferring responsibility”. WHY SHOULD I call the police? It’s not my business. The crossest person should call the police or that man in that (cheap) uniform. In group situations it is not clear who has what responsibilities. After all… WHY should YOU? Another form of rejecting responsibility is to infer that some else called the police (or whatever), when in fact no one did. “If there are so many people gathered here, for sure someone called the police”.

There can be an interaction between realizing that a bad thing is happening and copying others' behavior. If others don't react then it means that there is nothing wrong.

The bystander effect is a very interesting and somehow counterintuitive phenomenon. In very small groups it usually does not occur. If there are two people witnessing something bad, then most likely one or both would intervene. But when there are more people it is likely that no-one intervenes. The larger the group, the more likely it is for no one to intervene. So it is not DESPITE 1000 people witnessed, it is BECAUSE 1000 people witnessed.

Until now, I’ve talked about bad or evil things such as theft or murder. Unfortunately the bystander effect does not occur only in these somehow severe negative situations. It occurs in much more likely to encounter situations. Imagine that you receive a mass e-mail that was sent to the entire school, department, firm etc. asking for a recommendation of something. Most people would imagine that SOMEONE ELSE will answer. After all, why should you answer? Probably someone else did.    

Another example is in class rooms during courses or at events when the teacher or speaker wants to have some interaction and asks a question to the audience. If in the next 5 seconds after asking the question no one answers, then most likely no-one will do. This is more so when asking “did you understand?” or “are there any unclear things?”

What can be done to counter-balance the bystander effect? For once, it is important to KNOW that it is not despite 30 people were present no one did anything, but rather, because. However, simply knowing would not help much. What I believe would help is to assign responsibilities. If you are o victim or if you just want a recommendation for something, Be Personal, in the sense of saying “You, in the red shirt, call 112” or “Please John, can YOU recommend me a …”. People do not react or intervene not because they are bad or unwilling to help (in fact people are very willing to help). They are bystanders because everyone else does so and they don’t want to break the rule of the group. However, if help is requested from a particular person (the one in the red shirt), then that person would (most likely) be happy to help.

In order to diminish the bystander effect another line of action can be taken, namely learning. The key element in the bystander effect is that people don’t know what the “appropriate” behavior is and they infer it by observing and mimicking other people. “Bad thing” situations are somehow novel and ambiguous implying that people don’t really know what to do. Simply teaching and rehearsing the appropriate behavior will lead to a considerable reduction of this unfortunate effect. 

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