Friday, October 21, 2011

The Bystander Effect

Recently I have been watching a video going around Facebook, shared by a lot of friends of mine apparently, about how a toddler girl, Yue Yue (real name Wang Yue), was hit by a car in China and was subsequently ignored by 18 other people before finally a good Samaritan got to her. But as the story goes, it was too late. Yue Yue passed away today, October 21st after an intense struggle for survival in the hospital.


The news inevitably went on to generate loads and loads of discussions around the internet. How could people be so heartless after all, ignoring a small girl who lay dying beside the road as if nothing happened? Some people said that it was the Chinese that were to blame. "Made in China", one comment went in Youtube. Others blamed the decay of moral values in society. Some people theorized that those people in the video who ignored her was probably heartless bastards who did not know love or take pleasure in seeing people suffer.

No matter what explanation that we try to come up with for this tragedy, all of them seem to share a common feature. "If I was inside the video, I would have surely stopped and checked if she's alright". "If I was one of the passerby, she wouldn't have been ignored."
Or is it?

The sad answer is no. The above incident is an example of a well documented effect in Psychology called the Bystander Effect which basically take to mean that even if you happen to be one of the people who passed Yue Yue during that night, there is a high chance that you would have ignored her too and continued on your business. This is not to say that there's a fundamental flaw in your personality ie you're evil or heartless, it's just the way us humans are programmed to act naturally and it all can be boiled down to diffusion of responsibility and social comparison.

You see, when we are caught in a situation that we have not encountered before, there's this sense of uncertainty of what we are supposed to do. And naturally, we would then feel uneasy or even anxious when put in a novel situation. Just think back to the day when you first stepped into school or to work. You wouldn't know what to do and you mostly used other people as your point of reference of what you should do, thinking that if everyone was doing it, it must be the socially accepted way of doing things there. If everyone sat down quietly, so would you. That's called social comparison. As humans, it's part of our nature to try to blend in and look normal without attracting too much attention when we are faced with an unfamiliar situation.

Yue Yue's case was one example. A girl lying by the road side was probably one unfamiliar sight to begin with. I mean, how many of us actually encounter someone lying on the road side everyday? And lets say you happen to be walking by (assuming you have never heard or seen Yue Yue's case yet) while on your way back home after a tiring day at work. What would be your first reaction when you see her? One of the first thing that will come into your mind would very unlikely be that she has been hit by a car and needs your help (because you did not see the car hit her). So you begin to form various explanations of why she might be lying there. Is she homeless? Or drunk? Perhaps she was deliberately left there by her parents? Or was she hit by a car?

Of course, at first, you would have no way of confirming your theories so what's the next best thing that you can do? You look at the reactions of the people around you and see how they are behaving to compare the plausibility of your theories. You see that everyone is busy minding their own business, oblivious to the girl on the road and so you thought that perhaps this is not a big deal since no one is really caring. And surely you shouldn't be so busybody too right?

But lets say you do arrive at the conclusion that something is wrong, even after comparing everyone's actions. Would you do anything for her? According to theory, it depends on how many people you have around you. If you're the only one at the scene, there's a high chance that you would at least run over and check if there's something wrong. But if there's a lot of people around you, chances are that you would stand rooted on the ground thinking that perhaps, or maybe, someone else that is more qualified would intervene. After all, you don't know anything about emergencies so why bother? You might just worsen the situation. Now imagine everyone else thinking the same.

In a way, no one can be truly blamed for the incident that happened to Yue Yue. There are no heartless people to begin with, just plain old social comparison and diffusion of responsibility which all of us, even though we may think that we may not fall for it, are highly susceptible to. In fact, the bystander effect is perhaps one of the best documented instances of real life psychological events. Just search for Kitty Genovese or bystander effect examples to get what I'm talking about. In fact, as this few videos show, Yue Yue's case was certainly not the first.








So essentially, it wasn't the Chinese PRCs who are at fault. It wasn't the education system, the Westernization, the internet or the lack of parenting's fault either. It's a human fault. So does that mean that humanity in a way is doomed? Does that mean that you're probably not gonna end up well if you do wind up at the street and desperately needs help?

Thankfully, the answer is a no. Education goes a long way. Simply by reading this post and being aware of the bystander effect can greatly increase your chance of helping because you know that if you don't help no one will. And if you do help, others will follow suit. All they need is a gentle push.

But what if you're the one that needs help? Studies have shown that if you be specific, for example, instead of saying "Someone help me!" (which essentially diffuses the responsibility), you could say "You, the guy in the black shirt wearing the red jeans, I need help over here!" and there's a higher chance, in fact much higher, that the guy in the red jeans would help you. By being specific, you are putting the responsibility on that person and he would feel compelled to help you. It would be a shame if you are passed out though.

But whatever the case, we need to be aware of this effect so that the tragedy that befell Yue Yue would not be repeated again. Education goes a long way. And it looks like the good Samaritan mentioned in one of Jesus's parables was very well aware of the bystander effect even when Psychology was still 2000 years away from being founded.

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