When I was in college and taking Psychology 101, I never forgot learning about the Kitty Genovese case, which took place in March 1964. A 28 year-old American bar manager was stabbed to death in her apartment building in Queens. Over 30 witnesses either saw or heard the attack, but none called the police. This ultimately became known as the Bystander Effect or Genovese Syndrome. Here’s what Wikipedia states: “According to the principle of social influence, bystanders monitor the reactions of other people in an emergency situation to see if others think that it is necessary to intervene. If it is determined that others are not reacting to the situation, bystanders will interpret the situation as not an emergency and will not intervene.” We tend to need “social proof” to know how to react. During the Asch Conformity experiments, one line was written on the board and compared to three other lines, one of which was clearly the same length. And yet, the room was completely filled with actors except for the one student, and the actors kept giving incorrect responses. Ultimately the lone student would switch his answer to conform to the others even though it wasn’t right.
This week, I had two experiences with being an innocent bystander and having to act even without social proof. Last Sunday, I was in Boston walking down one of the busiest streets filled with lanes of cars. I happened to see an old couple standing on the curb next to a parked car. At first, I assumed they were going to get into that car. But then I realized that they were peeking out into traffic and trying to figure out how to cross when they weren’t at a crosswalk and the man was using a walker. My first reaction, as it is for many people, was that I was sure they knew what they were doing and I didn’t need to intervene. I figured that they would make their way over to the crosswalk. But a little voice nagged at me, so I asked them if they needed help. They said no, but they clearly weren’t moving toward the crosswalk. It would have been tempting to move on, but I felt like they were in over their heads. I said, “You know you should really cross at the crosswalk, since it’s much safer” and the woman said, “My husband can’t walk well and we can’t walk that far.” They clearly were wanting to cross right then and there in front of three lanes of traffic. So I said, “Maybe you should at least wait until the cars have a light, so the street will be clearer.” But the woman was in a hurry for some reason and didn’t want to wait. So I took a breath, walked in front of them, put my hand out to traffic, and miraculously the entire crowded Boston street stopped, with no honking, as I stood there with my umbrella in the middle of the street in the pouring rain, and the couple slowly made their way across the street. It felt like a scene from a movie in which a person is standing in the street and all the cars are silently stopped. I was grateful that I chose not to be an innocent bystander while that couple crossed the road, because I would have felt horrible if something had happened.
And two days ago, I witnessed my son’s soccer practice, in which one kid was being bullied by the whole team, right in front of me and two of the coaches. The kids were shouting mean things to this boy, about how they thought he was a lousy player, and laughing at him and refusing to pass to him. He just stood there and took it. I kept thinking that someone would intervene and yet no one did, not even the coaches. So after five minutes of this, I ran over to the coaches and yelled, “You need to stop this right now. Do you hear what they are doing to him? Imagine how he must be feeling?” The coach looked more embarrassed that I had called him out than upset about the situation. In fact, he didn’t seem to think that this was a problem. It took another 10 minutes before the coach gathered the kids and simply said, “You need to be nicer to each other.” What? That was it? I was stunned at how complicit these adults were. They should have been ashamed of themselves for allowing this. But the reality is that it happens all the time. I think about the Holocaust and how so many people decided just to be innocent bystanders, thinking that since they weren’t Jewish, it wasn’t really their problem. I am grateful for the people who did stand up to injustice even if most people didn’t.
To find your world stage, remember that there is no such thing as an innocent bystander. If you are watching and someone needs you, you have a moral obligation to respond. Don’t wait for social proof to know whether to act, and don’t assume if there are others around, that you don’t need to do anything. The world is sad and broken enough. We need more people willing to respond, regardless of what others are doing.