Sunday, 14 August 2011

Kitty and the Bystander Effect

Hi! My name is Catherine Genovese but my friends call me "Kitty". I'm 28 years old and the oldest of five children I worked at Ev's Eleventh Hour Sports Bar in Hollis, Queens, New York. My parents moved away when I was 19 to Connecticut but I stayed. Do you like my dress? I had to wait a lot of tables to buy it. I used to be pretty but now I'm gone. I was murdered on March 13, 1964 I was walking home from work a little after 3 am when this man named Winston Moseley stabbed me. I screamed, "Oh my God he stabbed me!" No one came to help. Thirty-eight people watched me die and no one ever tried to help. One man even turned up his radio to cover up the sound of me screaming. My killer actually left me alive but was so surprised that no one called the police or came to help that he came back 10 minutes later and finished me off. He's in prison now but he's still alive, but I'm gone forever.
Winston Moseley

Do I have your attention now? A lone individual will generally step in if someone needs help it's called a bystander intervention but that isn't the point of this article. This real murder case kicked off a lot of research where scientists couldn't believe this could actually happen, but it did. It's called the Bystander Effect. It basically means that the larger the group is that witnesses a violent event the less likely it is that anyone will do anything to help even if the person obviously means it.

James Bulger
Let's look at a few more examples of this psychological phenomenon. 
Left, we have a picture of James Bulger not quite 2 years old. He was kidnapped on February 12 1993 in Merseyside, England, and his body was found murdered and mutilated on February 14th. Witnesses say he was kicking and screaming at the kidnapping afterwards. He was kidnapped in a shopping centre in full view of the public and no one did anything. By the way the photo on the right is an actual photograph of James Bulger being led away after he got too tired to fight anymore. Notice all the people walking by but they aren't even looking? The 10 year old on the right is one of his murderers and the photo is from a security camera. Did no one think his screaming for help was odd?

James with killer
There are many examples of this phenomenon. In 1972 Dr Wolfgang Friedmann, who was a law professor at Columbia University was shot to death in broad daylight and bled to death on the sidewalk and no one did anything. On June 23 last year in Wichita, KS Lashanda Calloway was stabbed to death in a convenience store. Five witnesses just stepped over the body and one even took a picture of Lashanda's body with her mobile phone to show her friends. The police were livid and I don't blame them. Lashanda was only 27 she died later that night at the hospital.

So what in God's name is wrong with these people? The fact is it's all too common. The first lab experiments done on this phenomenon were done in 1968 by John Darley and Bibb Latane. A participant was placed alone in a room with an intercom. They are told they can talk to the other participants in the other rooms from the intercom. They were actually listening to an audio recording and told their microphone would be turned off until their turn to speak. During the recording a participant suddenly pretends to have a seizure. The study found that how long the person waits before alerting the experimenter directly related to the perceived number of participants and in some cases nobody said anything they just ignored it.

There's a lot excuses used for this behaviour. Basically with a lot of people around people tend to assume that someone else will step in and individually fall prey to the same assumption. This is called the diffusion of responsibility. Another example of this is a firing squad where one of the shooters is issued blanks but no one knows which one. This allows each one of the shooters to believe that someone else fired the fatal shot. Some electric chairs have more than one switch but only one of them is connected. This allows executioners to believe they flipped a non-functioning switch.

In a violent attack witnessed by a group the number of people allows each person to believe somebody else should've done something so they don't feel any responsibility for not doing a damn thing. Some may falsely assume that someone else is more qualified to help such as a doctor or police officer. They may fear being a little humiliated by being superseded by a superior helper. They may possibly be afraid of doing a bad job assisting or making it worse and getting sued. Bystanders tend to monitor the reactions of people around them and if they don't' see them helping then they think that maybe they don't need to do anything either. This is called pluralistic ignorance. It basically means that even if someone has a dissenting opinion from a group they don't do anything because they think the groups behaviour is a unanimous belief. Either way it's all a complete mess.

So how do you combat this phenomenon? Think about it this way. If you’re a martial artist or combative instructor and you have the training and ability to help then it's your responsibility to help. We have too many paper tigers in this industry already. Police, military, etc are all great examples of warriors in our society today. However you don't have to be either one to be a warrior. I bet there's something each one of us can do every day to make a difference in our society. We can be educators. We can train people, and by God if you see somebody getting attacked take responsibility and help them!

On the other hand what if you’re getting attacked? Don't assume anyone is going to help you. You can break the diffusion of responsibility by assigning it to someone. Instead of yelling, "Help!" Point someone out and scream for help making it personal. Scream their name if you know it. If I had started this article out by just saying Kitty Genovese and James Bulger got murdered sure people would've thought it was bad but when you see the actual face and know something about them it has a little more impact doesn't it?

This also is the counter to pluralistic ignorance. When one person steps in then it provides social proof that the others may be looking for before stepping in and gets the help flowing. When you scream to this person, give them a task such as call the police. It's the best way to break this horrible cycle. There have been studies to suggest that if you’re part of a group or a group of people perceive you as part of their group, then they will help. A good example is bikers. If you fight one you’re probably going to have to fight them all.

It's my hope that the people reading this article will take this to heart. If you see someone that needs help then help them. If you’re being attacked in such a violent way maybe you know a little more now about what to do. When I first read about the Kitty Genovese Case I was deeply offended. That offense quickly turned to concern as I compiled data for this article. The fact that a group of people could just watch someone die was mind numbing but it probably happens on a daily basis which is sickening. I never knew Kitty Genovese, I wasn't born until 1973, but I'll never forget that case or that of James Bulger. I'll never just stand there and watch someone get violated and neither should you, because after reading this article and having the knowledge you should know......................................