Full version The Bystander Effect

The Bystander Effect

This print version free essay The Bystander Effect.

Category: Psychology

Autor: reviewessays 09 February 2011

Words: 2640 | Pages: 11

There is one question that has undoubtedly crossed the minds of most Americans at one time in their life, and continues to plague the country. Should I help or should I just walk away? What I am referring to is something psychologists have named the Bystander Effect. According to the Penguin Dictionary of Psychology, the bystander effect is defined as such: the more people present when help is needed, the less likely any of them is to provide assistance (2001). At first glance this definition seems a bit backwards. Common sense leads one to believe that there is safety in numbers. However, through research and personal exposure to this phenomenon in our society, the proof of this definition is all too shocking. One well known example of this is the homicide case in New York City involving Kitty Genovese.

For roughly thirty-five minutes, thirty-eight residents in the apartments that overlooked the street watched from their windows as Kitty Genovese was brutally attacked and continually stabbed. Not a single resident offered assistance or in the least, called the police (Rosenthal 1964). Where does one begin to try and understand this careless disregard for the safety of others? This event is a perfect demonstration of the Bystander Effect. While the residents were watching the attack they also noticed that others were watching. With this knowledge of others’ awareness of the situation, a diffusion of responsibility occurs. “If others are known to be present, but their behavior cannot be closely observed, any one bystander can assume that one of the other observers is already taking action to end the emergency. Therefore, his own intervention would be only redundant---perhaps harmfully or confusingly so…thus convincing himself that �somebody else might be doing something’.” (Darley & Latanè 1968-1) This thought that someone else will assist the victim or that another bystander has probably called the police, enters most people’s mind at this stage. What Darley and Latanè also discovered was that people within their studies were worried about the shame and/or guilt that they would feel if they did not assist the victim. On the flip-side of this thought, the bystander did not want to be humiliated, embarrassed, or made a fool of (1968-1). One thing this shows is that people within our society could put their social standing or even their personal pride above a simple task as assisting a person in need. This reason is hopefully not the whole reason that a person would choose inaction, however it is involved on some level.

Most emergencies are, or at least begin as, ambiguous events. A quarrel in the street may erupt into violence, but it may be simply a family argument. A man staggering may be suffering a coronary or an onset of diabetes; he may be simply drunk. Smoke pouring from a building may signal a fire; on the other hand, it may be simply steam or air-conditioning vapor. Before a bystander is likely to take action in such ambiguous situations, he must first define the event as an emergency and decide that intervention is the proper course of action…and he must decide that it is his personal responsibility to act. (Latanè & Darley 1968)

Bibb Latanè and John Darley found that a crowd, instead of having a higher rate of assistance, can force inaction on its members (1968-2). The popular thought is that a group could interact and discuss the situation and ultimately offer more assistance to a victim than a single person could. “An individual, seeing the inaction of others, will judge a situation as less serious than he would if he were alone…Until someone acts, each person only sees the other non-responding bystanders, and is likely to be influenced not to act himself” (1968-2). The only way to completely understand these findings and their proceeding actions is for one to observe people in a situation to see how they would truly act. Irving Piliavin, Judith Rodin, and Jane Piliavin conducted a “field experiment to find the effects of several variables on helping behavior. This experiment was conducted on the express trains of the New York 8th Avenue Independent Subway” (Piliavin et. al. 1969). These experiments were conducted to be able to monitor different conditions that could possibly accompany a bystander’s decision to assist.

Evidence uncovered by the trio showed that bystanders “…will sometimes derogate the characters of the victims of misfortune, instead of feeling compassion” (1969). The thought process of this brings back the diffusion of responsibility. If one takes these findings and couples it with another experiment done by John Darley and Bibb Latanè which states, “…an individual may feel less personal responsibility for helping[the victim] if he shares the responsibility with others” (Latanè & Darley 1968), a reasonable individual will begin to realize that there is an emerging pattern of thought on the bystanders part. However, Irving Piliavin, Judith Rodin, and Jane Piliavin also found that, “Several investigators found that an individual’s actions in a given situation does lead others in that situation to engage in similar actions” (Piliavin et al 1969). What this information does reveal are people's social vulnerability to each other. The experiments findings within the Piliavin, Rodin, Piliavin study was that a person who is ill is more likely to receive aid as compared to an apparent drunk. Also, they found that the race of the victim has very little bearing on the race of the helper, except when the victim is drunk (1969). Now, when these experiments findings were originally published in 1969, racism and racial prejudice were much more visible and quite a bit more involved in the daily lives of the public. Though, to say that racism and prejudice no longer exist in America is a bald face fallacy. But we have, as a country, come very far enough along the road to equality to be able to see a visible change in that society. There is, “…very little evidence of prejudice toward sober individuals, whether white or black. There was a large increase (65%) in prejudice expressed towards drunks of both races (white and black)” (1969). So when alcohol is a factor of the victim’s situation, the possibility of help from any bystander is decreased immensely. The gender make-up of a group, surprisingly, also affects which bystander will respond. The Subway study showed that, “given mixed groups of men and women, and there is a male victim, men are more likely to help than are women” (1969). In order to find out what people are really thinking, some of the student volunteers within this study were sitting observing the various experiments. They would talk to the person next to them after the incident occurred to obtain quasi-real feelings and thoughts of the non-responsive bystanders. “Many women, for example, made comments such as, �It’s for men to help him’ or �I wish I could help him---I’m not strong enough’, and �I never saw this kind of thing before---I don’t know where to look’ and �You feel so bad that you don’t know what to do’.”(Piliavin et al 1969) Although these responses are very reasonable and understandable, were these responses deep and did they carry personal meaning? What was originally overlooked, but at the end of the experiments recognized was that, “…the major motivation in these models are not a positive, altruistic one, but rather a selfish desire to rid oneself of an unpleasant emotional state” (1969). So then are people helping for the common good or just as this study showed, to alleviate some negative feelings they have? Seeing as the research needed to completely study this is unavailable, there might be a different track of research available to better understand this question. Could bystanders be choosing inaction not for the emotional state that they could possibly be putting themselves into but rather for the fear of being sued, or held accountable for possible damages or even additional harm caused to the victim upon their assistance?

Popular media, via television shows, have offered the populous insight into this dilemma. From shows such as CSI and Law and Order we see how bystanders react, or rather do not act. “In an episode of the second season of the show Desperate Housewives, character Bree Van de Kamp is threatened by her son to be exposed for having stood by while a man she used to have an affair with committed suicide. She hires a lawyer who explains that she specifically was not under any requirement to assist this person (Good 2008).” Now, while the show itself is a fictional piece of work, there is some truth to the question Bree asked her lawyer. The United States does not have a federal Good Samaritan Law, which then leaves the states and other jurisdictions to provide one, if at all. According to Wikipedia, “Good Samaritan laws (acts) in the United States and Canada are laws/acts protecting from blame those who choose to aid other who are injured or ill. They are intended to reduce a bystander’s hesitation to assist, for fear of being sued or prosecuted for unintentional injury or wrongful death” (Good 2008). While most of the states do have acts of this nature, none of them include a duty to rescue. For example, according to the German law of Unterlassene Hilfeleistung, which means neglect of duty to provide assistance, a citizen is obligated to provide first aid or assistance to another when it is needed and is protected from prosecution if their help given in good faith and judgment turns out to be harmful (2008). This in and of itself, is crucial because in the American society one can be sued for virtually anything, hence why these laws were drafted. Would our society be a safer, better place if we had a federal law like the Germans? It is merely a possibility for our congressional leaders to really take a look at these laws and if they are in fact, working. Even though all jurisdictions with these types of laws might not offer protection to the laypersons, some have a sort of emergency clause. Some areas will offer protection to laypersons (bystanders) when they assist in aiding victims during a declared public health emergency (2008).

Within the laws binding citizens living in the State of Rhode Island, it states that “No person who voluntarily and gratuitously renders emergency assistance to a person in need including life saving treatment to those persons suffering from anaphylactic shock shall be liable for civil damages which result from acts or omissions by such persons rendering the emergency care” (Rhode Island 2008). This law provides immunity from liability to any bystander who does engage in any helping or assistance to another in need. The other two states in southern New England surrounding Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut, both do not have any mention of immunity of liability for laypersons within their Good Samaritan laws. Connecticut’s Good Samaritan law provides “immunity from liability for emergency medical workers” (Connecticut 2008), while Massachusetts’s Good Samaritan law is quite a bit more specific and provides immunity of “liability for emergency medical technicians, police officers, or firefighters” (Massachusetts 2008) only. However one thing that Massachusetts has that most others, including the nation, don’t is a duty to report, but not a duty to aid.

Whoever knows that another person is a victim of aggravated rape, rape, murder, manslaughter, or armed robbery and is at, or near, the scene of said crime shall, to the extent that said person can do so without danger or peril to himself, herself, or others, report said crime to an appropriate law enforcement official as soon as reasonably practicable. (Massachusetts G.L. 2008)

As shown, states very close in geographical location can, and do, have very different definitions and protections within their laws. There are, however, a few things that are the same with most states that have some sort of Good Samaritan law or act. For starters, if there is no relation between the bystander and the victim prior to the events occurrence, such as a parent-child relationship or a doctor-patient relation, then no person is required to give physical aid of any sort to a victim. The only reason this is the case is because our country’s laws do not constitute a duty to rescue. Also, any assistance given, in any form, from contacting the authorities to actual first aid, must not be done for an exchange of a reward or financial compensation. Even though a bystander can never be forced to put him or herself in danger to aid another person, there are a few things that are suggested to be done while a bystander is responding to a scene. It is recommended that a bystander never leave the scene when helping until: a) it is necessary to call for needed medical assistance, b) someone of equal or greater ability can take over, and c) if continuing to assist the victim is unsafe (Good 2008). Safety could be something as simple as the lack of protective gear, such as gloves to prevent the contraction of a blood borne pathogens or a fire-retardant suit allowing the wearer longer, slightly safer entrance into a house on fire.

The emergence of the Bystander Effect could be slightly rooted in the laws, or lack of laws, in the governing state in which the situation arises. No person wants to be jailed, fined, or have to deal with the ridiculousness that sometimes surrounds the police and their methods, for doing something that they believed to be helpful in a situation. The changes in our society revolving around this phenomenon and its occurrences, as well as societal change on every level have quite a bit to do with the intervention of bystanders in emergency situations. If there was a specific federal Good Samaritan law that would protect people more clearly defined, than it is this researcher’s honest opinion that the plaguing question on peoples’ minds would no longer be a question, but merely a call for assistance in public safety.

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