An Alternative View on the Bystander Effect
By Dennis Loo (6/8/14)
The so-called "bystander effect" is typically offered as an illustration of humanity's shortcomings: a crowd of people fail to act to prevent or mitigate a tragedy such as someone being viciously assaulted. Frequently among laypeople the bystander effect is brought up to condemn humans as sheeplike, cowardly and/or callous.
The most famous case cited to illustrate this is the 1964 Kitty Genovese incident in Queens, New York where Genovese was murdered in front of hundreds of her neighbors in a housing project. There is also a recent incident in China involving a two-year old child run over by two cars before someone went to her assistance.
I am going to offer here an alternative view of the bystander effect from the customary one.
The bystander effect is actually a really good example of the power of social dynamics. Since we are social creatures, we function as members of a larger group. One of the ways that that operates is for us to diffuse responsibility to others in the group. It’s in the nature of groups that we assume that others are taking care of things since groups operate that very way: the sole responsibility does not lie in any one person’s lap. When situations that can provoke the bystander effect occur, you are operating in an ill-defined situation because the crowd that is witnessing the problematic event is not organized in any way. They are simply a crowd and there are no clear lines of authority present. That authority has to be created on the fly by someone who recognizes that it’s a diffused responsibility and unorganized situation. They therefore have to take it upon themselves to constitute a leading role in the unorganized situation.
Once they do that others will swing into motion in response to someone helping to transform the situation into an organized one.
Social psychological experiments designed to test for the bystander effect show that the likelihood that people will respond by helping someone in need goes down in inverse proportion to the number of bystanders. The most likely situation for people to assist others is when they are alone. The more witnesses, the more diffuse the responsibilty becomes and the less likely any one individual will respond to the person in need because they think that someone else will do it.
The fact that people think that someone else will do the right thing and they themselves don't have to do it is therefore not simply a matter of human indifference because if indifference was the main factor at work, it would not make a difference in the response rate whether there was one witness to a situation requiring assistance or many witnesses. The response rate would be the same if it's human indifference in play. The fact that the response rate varies tremendously depending on the number of witnesses points to the sallence of social dynamics.
The fact that humans are social beings therefore has both positive and negative ramifications. Since we are such thoroughly social beings as a rule, it is to be expected that we would act as such in all social situations. It should not be surprising that in unorganized and ill-defined situations that a diffusion of responsibility should occur. What the bystander effect underscores, then, is the impact that individuals who break from the spell of "pluralistic ignorance" - people tend to look at what others are doing and wrongly assume that everyone else has consciously decided that inaction is the proper response and they thus tend to conform to what they see others are doing - can have on the group.
Individuals and groups, in other words, operate in dialectical relationship to each other. The very strength of groups in their diffusion or division of responsibility that gives groups the ability to do so much more than any unorganized individuals can do can also operate negatively in novel, unorganized, and ill-defined situations. The solution to that problem is for people who are more willing to break from the invisible ties that bind and step forward in order to mobilize the group and free the group to act.
Another way to put that is that groups rely upon individual leaders as a means of organizing the group. Groups cannot act minus their being organized. Groups, in other words, need leaders. And sometimes that means individuals stepping forward to provide that leadership when there is either an absence of leadership or when the existing leadership in well-defined situations is wrong and leading others down the wrong path.
For better and for worse we are and will always be social beings. Those who make a pastime of blaming humanity for being human are not bettering the situation because they don't actually understand the upside and downsides of being social creatures. If you understand social dynamics then you can act consciously to overcome the shortcomings that humanity's social nature manifests in order to mobilize its very substantial resources and dynamic nature for good ends rather than bad ends. The problem with humanity, in other words, is not that we are social creatures. The problem with humanity turns or falls on what kind of leadership is being exerted and what kind of systems we have that govern us as individuals and groups.
This site aims to accomplish two related goals. First, it complements Dennis Loo's book Globalization and the Demolition of Society so that people reading the book can get more deeply into it. (See navigation bar above, labeled "GDS Book Annotations"). We believe that his book is a landmark, providing a solid foundation for politics of a new path. Taking such a path is critical to humanity and the planet's future. As his book's dust jacket states:
[F]ree market fundamentalism - also known as neoliberalism - makes us not more secure or prosperous: it tears the social fabric and undermines security, leading inevitably to disasters on the individual, regional, and global levels.
Neoliberalism is based on the mantra that market forces should run everything. It aims to eliminate job and income security, the social safety net (including welfare and other social guarantees), unions, pensions, public services, and the governmental regulation of corporations. It consequently undermines the basis for people to voluntarily cooperate with authority as almost everyone is increasingly left by themselves to face gargantuan private interests, with governmental and corporate authority ever more indifferent to the public’s welfare.
Those in charge of our collective fates in government and business personify a heartless system based on profit and plunder. They have been relentlessly instituting profoundly immoral and unjust policies even while they insist that they are doing the opposite. We, on the other hand, stand for and are fighting for a radically different system and set of values than this.
Second, in order to get at the truth and because the ways in which humanity's historic striving for understanding and its capacity to wonder and imagine are very rich and diverse, we seek to reflect that richness and diversity on our site. See "About Us" on navigation bar. We intend to be engaging and compelling, as the best investigative journalism and art are, and relentlessly scientific, rigorous, and direct, as those who cherish the truth are. We believe that we can be both accessible and sophisticated. As Loo lays out in his book,
Defeating the empire is not something that occurs only on the literal battlefield. It is also something that is determined throughout the continuum of battles over many issues, including: ideas; philosophy; forms of organization and leadership in economy, politics, and other realms; ways of arguing; ways of responding to and respecting empirical data; interest in truth as opposed to expedience; how people and the environment should be treated; the nature of relations among people (e.g., between women and men, different races and ethnicities, rich and poor countries, etc.); ways of responding to criticism and ideas that are not your own; ways of handling one’s own errors and those of others; and more, all the way up through how warfare is carried out. The contrast between the methods and goals of the neoliberals and those of us who seek an entirely different world is stark. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, Pp. 326-7)