Wednesday, March 11, 2015

It's Not You I Have a Problem With...

...It's people.

Back in 1964 a woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death near her home in Queens. Reportedly, that murder was "witnessed" (not necessarily seen but heard) by dozens of people and none of them called for help or reported the crime. The entire attack, during which Genovese was raped and repeatedly stabbed, took about half an hour. It wasn't until then that a neighbor finally came to see what was going on, only to find Genovese dying and her attacker gone.

Although it turned out that the neglect of the people that "witnessed" the crime wasn't as bad as it was reported to be (for instance, neighbors heard the disturbance but thought it was only a lovers' quarrel or something so never went to see what was happening), the bystander effect (which is a very real thing where people do nothing because they are waiting for someone else to do something) has come to be known as Genovese Syndrome.

It all has to do with "diffusion of responsibility," which is to say that the more people who are present, the less likely any one specific one of them will do anything as far as standing up for someone else. It's the same kind of behavior that possible made what the SS did in Germany leading up to and during WWII: People are disappearing but no one is going to say anything because, hey, at least it wasn't me. Right? Someone else can do something about it. Not me.

It was the New York case that really prompted the psychological study of this social condition, and it has been repeatedly shown in tests that the likelihood of someone to offer help of any kind to someone is in inverse proportion to the number of people present. For instance, one of the studies dealt with a woman falling down and being "hurt." When there was only one person present, that person would offer assistance to the woman about 70% of the time. [70%! What the freaking heck! That means that 30% would just walk past! Wait... this sounds like a familiar story.] As more people were involved to witness the woman fall, the less likely it was that anyone would offer help, so, with two people, someone offered help only 40% of the time.

To me, this is insane behavior, and it gets worse the more complicated the situation is, like if someone is being aggressive or attacking someone else. Also, it is this same root phenomenon, just reversed, that leads to mob behavior.

To make things even more interesting (or baffling about how humans have managed to survive for so long), there were some recent studies done on how this phenomenon affects online behavior. In the studies, two people were planted in chat room situations: one to bully and one to be bullied. In these simulations, only 10% of the other people in the chat rooms would come to the defense of the person being bullied. 10%! Let me put that another way: During these simulations where one person would bully and verbally abuse another person, 90% of the participants would act as if nothing was going on. 90%!

These were basically anonymous environments where there could be no actual repercussions from the abusive person, and only one person in ten would do the right thing. After all of the media coverage of online bullying and teenagers committing suicide over it, this is amazing to me. Not in a good way.

I get it. People pretty much suck, but this takes the suckitude of people to a whole new level. I don't know; maybe, science is wrong. Maybe we didn't survive as a species because of our ability to work together. Maybe we survived by always throwing the other person under the bus. Um, I mean the tiger. Or the bear. Or whatever. Or, maybe, we've just gotten worse over time because of our tendency to breed assholes. I suppose the past doesn't matter that much in that respect. What I do know, though, is that if we don't start, as a species, looking out for the other guy, globally, pretty soon, there won't be any of us left. Globally.

24 comments:

  1. That is a disturbing online study, especially for our children where online bullying seems to be rampant. I guess it's easier to hide behind a computer screen these days. The only thing I know to do is teach my kids to stand up for what is right and hope others do the same.

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    1. JKIR,F!: I think people have to be willing to take a stand before they can even begin to think about passing that on.

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  2. I suppose that's why real heroes are so rare. And also why I freaking love the president of Oklahoma University for taking a hard stand against the fraternity members caught singing their racist chant.

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    1. L.G.: I saw a headline about that, but I didn't click through to see what it was about.
      And, yes, I'm sure that's why there are so few people willing to put it on the line for someone else.

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  3. A couple years ago when I was choking on a piece of shrimp in a restaurant the people at the tables closest to me just sat there gawking. It was someone more to the back of the place who came over to help, so there's something to be said for there's experiments.

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    1. Pat: I don't know how anyone could sit and stare at someone who is choking. I mean, unless you just utterly have no clue as to how to respond to that, but I find that hard to believe in anyone who has reached double digits.

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  4. This phenomenon is the entire basis of the show "what would you do?" which I find fascinating.

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    1. Maurice: I've never heard of that show; I'll have to look it up.

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  5. There needs to be more empathy in the world.

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    1. Michael: There does. Unfortunately, empathy is related to intelligence and people with average intelligence are rarely unable to empathize with any except the very closest to them.

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  6. I think it's because aggression and being totally self-sufficient is what's called "winning" in society. Plus the fact that people want to avoid being the one that's targeted, so they just ignore it and hope someone else will do something.

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    1. Jeanne: I think this kind of thing in particular is about not wanting to be the one targeted or being dragged into something bigger if they help. You know, like having to give a statement to the police or, horrors!, having to be involved in a trial.

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  7. I was five years old when Kitty Genovese was murdered, and I still remember the accusations against the neighbors who didn't help. It seems extenuating circumstances existed. I think people who don't help often don't know what to do, or are frozen in panic, or aren't sure what's wrong. When I was in a body cast and using a walker, it was obvious that I had difficulty standing and walking. People were so kind to me. No one just walked away and ignored me when I needed help with a door or anything else.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. Janie: That kind of help is courtesy. People don't have as much trouble with that as they do with coming to the aid of someone in trouble. Also, you probably don't actually have a good way of telling how many people in your area chose not to help you. 40% out of, say, 20 is plenty enough people to help you with a door.

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  8. This is one of the first things you learn about in Psych 101. And it's terrifying. I've seen it in action. The new iteration is for no one to help, but a handful of people to record what's occurring on their phones. Wasn't it last year or so that someone got hit by a vehicle and was still alive, but people were just video taping them lying there? I forget what the actual story was, but it was something like that.

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    1. Shannon: Our fixation on video everything is disturbing, especially since it's all about getting that one video that makes you famous. Or something. Put down the stupid phone and help!

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  9. Apathy, I suppose is at the heart of this really -- not so much fear, because the online thing wouldn't involve anything that would harm you, as you point out.

    I think a lot more goes into this than people suspect; for example, are people more likely to help if they know the other person, or at certain times of the day or in certain areas?

    Either way, I can't imagine seeing someone I thought was in trouble and not helping them... only I can. We walk or drive by homeless people or other people with varying degrees of need all the time. I was asked yesterday by a guy whether I had any money, and I replied (truthfully) that I didn't. I have no idea if the guy needed money or not, and for what, and why he didn't have enough money. But I knew that I couldn't help him immediately, and so I didn't even bother inquiring.

    I know that's not the same in DEGREE as "woman getting raped" or even "woman falling down," but it's the same kind of thinking. If it's okay to not even inquire about a guy who needs money, where do you draw the line? A legless man who needs money? A legless man sleeping outside in the winter?

    It gets even worse, for me: we were driving home one time from work, Sweetie and I. It was January and really cold. Ahead of us, a guy was riding a bike and we commented on how dumb it is to ride a bike on icy streets in the winter. The guy of course went down, about 10 feet later. I slammed on my brakes to not hit him, watched him stand up and walk his bike over to the sidewalk.

    I didn't ever stop and ask if he was okay or needed a ride somewhere or anything. I just drove on, still talking about how dumb he was. Now I think of that and think that I'm not very much different from those people who walked by the fallen lady. And I don't think of myself like that, but reading your post that's the process I went through:

    "I'm not like that at all..."

    "What about that biker guy?"

    "Rats."

    I do really stop and help sometimes, though. I once went with a guy to buy him a meal when I was a student, and I usually give a little money to panhandlers, if I have it on me. I don't think I'm TERRIBLE. But I know I'm not perfect.

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    1. Briane: I think apathy applies more to the case of homeless people than to someone needing immediate help. Often, with someone who is homeless, there is no practical way of helping that person. Dropping some money in their hands isn't going to change their situation and, often, just supports their problems.

      Just to say it: I never carry cash on me. That's not so that I can't help people who are asking, actually, but because my kids always used to take it all if I had it. However, there are lots of drawbacks to giving people handouts, but I think that's too long for a simple response. Maybe I'll do a post about that.

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  10. When I took a self-defense class, the instructor told us never to yell "Help!" because of this problem. Instead, we were supposed to yell "Fire! There's a fire!" which will get everyone to react, because it may encroach on their world.

    I still find it terribly sad, but yeah...

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    1. Alex H: That is... I don't even have a word for what that is.

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  11. It's disturbing but true. I have heard of people stepping up to help in a situation and then being sued because of some outcome someone else didn't like. There's problems on both sides of the fence, but we should be willing to help someone in trouble without waiting for someone else to do it or weighing out the situation. A delay of a matter of seconds can sometimes be the difference between life and death.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    A Faraway View

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    1. Lee: And, see, I want to go out on a limb here and bet that it was a lawyer who convinced those people to sue the person trying to help.

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    2. You're probably right, but the person had the decision to make whether or not to sue. Greed leads people to do lousy things.

      Arlee Bird
      A to Z Challenge Co-host
      Tossing It Out

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    3. Lee: Yes, it does. Especially if it's mixed with grief because something went wrong. It's like a double-whammy. I'll make you pay, and I'll make you PAY!

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