Are we all jerks? Why nobody helps when surrounded by others

Why We Do Not Help

People often think that the lack of helping behavior is caused by apathy or a general indifference towards the victim. Instead, non-helpers are in general more upset than helpers (Darley & Latané, 1968). A person who faces an emergency is in conflict; this is particularly true when it is a dangerous situation such as the shooting near the bar. People in general have rational and irrational fears about what might happen when they would intervene - maybe they will get hurt as well (Milgram & Hollander, 1964). On the other hand, most of us have innate humanitarian urges that make us want to help a victim. But what could weaken our tendency to help and be a good humanitarian? In the following section I will name three possibilities why we do not help when we face an emergency. If you are aware of these three constraints for being a good humanitarian, you might be better in overcoming these constraints when you will face an emergency situation in the future.

We do not notice an emergency.

The first one is as obvious as it is simple: You have to notice that someone needs help. When a person hurries down a crowded street, he or she will be less likely to notice someone who is in need. So something trivial, like being in a hurry, can make people less likely to help. A study showed this by dividing participants into two groups: a hurry group and a non-hurry group. As they were walking to another building, each of the students passed a man who was lying in the doorway. The man, an accomplice of the experimenters, coughed and groaned as each student walked by. The students who were not in a hurry provided help most of the time (63%). However, students who were hurrying to keep their appointment helped in only 10 % of the cases. This may be partially explained by the fact that many of the hurrying students failed to notice the ‘victim’ (Darley & Batson, 1973). The same may have happened with the waitress in Café Moto, who was too busy serving food to stop and wonder what was going on when she heard the gunshots.

We do not interpret it as an emergency.

Even if people do notice an emergency, they still may fail to act. It is also necessary to interpret the event as an emergency as people are not always certain about what is going on in a situation. For example, when you are in a bar and hear a strange sound, you might think that nothing is wrong when nobody else reacts. In this case, you use others as a source of information. The problem with using others as a source of information is that others may not be sure what is going on either. Since an emergency is often a sudden and confusing event, bystanders tend to freeze with blank expressions as they try to figure out what is going on. When they glance at others they see an apparent lack of concern on their faces as well. This is called pluralistic ignorance; bystanders assume that nothing is wrong in an emergency when no one else looks concerned (Aronson & Akert, 2007). This may have happened in Café Moto as there were no reactions after the gunshots and the people present did not interpret the event as an emergency.

We do not feel responsible

Although most of them are, not every emergency is ambiguous to the bystanders. There are emergencies in which people do know that something is wrong, like the two men in the bar who did perceive the sound as gunshots. However, they also did not help, perhaps because they might not have felt any responsibility to do so. We can explain this reluctance to help by considering diffusion of responsibility; each bystander’s sense of responsibility decreases as the number of witnesses’ increases. The responsibility is exclusively yours shoulders when alone, but becomes reduced when there are more people. It feels like the bystanders literally share the responsibility and therefore this diminishes the responsibility per person. Since the individual might perceive a low level of responsibility, he or she might not act in response as well (Aronson & Akert, 2007). When it is just you facing the emergency, you are the only person in a position to help the victim, and so most of us will not hesitate to help. When more people are around this certainty that the victim will go unassisted disappears. This is also what might have happened in the seizure experiment as well as in Café Moto: Every individual might have thought that some of the other bystanders already helped and because of this they do not feel responsible themselves.

From the editors

Janneke Schilder’s article managed to fully engage me in the complexities surrounding the bystander effect. There’s good reason why it has the most views of all the articles on our new website! Janneke does not just provide an overview of the bystander effect, but asks the fundamental question: what can we do about it?

Of all the ways to mitigate the bystander effect, one in particular captured my attention. Beaman and colleagues (1978), mentioned above, presented teaching material on the bystander effect to undergraduate students. At a later date, these students were called into the lab for seemingly unrelated studies. The students who attended the bystander effect lectures were much more likely to help the victim of a bicycle accident (Study 1) and a man fallen down on the institution's corridors (Study 2). In fact, in the first study, 67% of students who had been taught about the effect helped, compared to only 27% in the control group. The reasoning behind these results is that participants who learned about the bystander effect knew others around them will be unlikely to help, therefore they knew it was their responsibility to intervene in an emergency situation.

This got me thinking about whether communicating the bystander effect in our InMind Magazine might have any effect on our readers. What do you think? Do you think reading about the effect will make people more likely to help in emergency situations?

Before you answer (and I do hope some of you will), I will leave you with one more thought. Beaman and colleagues were inspired to carry out the study above by Kenneth Gergen’s 1973 article ‘Psychology as history’, an article that significantly shook the social psychology field at the time. Among other ideas, he proposed that by communicating research about psychological effects, psychologists will alter people’s behaviour, and therefore those psychological laws that we communicate will stop applying to this changed public. Learning about obedience will make us less obedient, about bystanders less of a bystander, to the point that the laws we learned about do not reflect people’s behaviour anymore. What do you think of that idea?

Does reading of bystanders make you less of a bystander? And could this have the potential to change the laws of helping behaviour as we know them? Don’t be a bystander, pitch in to the conversation!

Diana Onu
Associate Editor

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