I was moments from sleep last night, I could feel my thoughts slowing, slipping into a dream when suddenly, out of the cricket-chirps and rustling leaves came a scream. “AHHHHH, AHHHH, AHHHHHHHHHH,” I heard. Exactly like that, over and over again.
I ran to my window and listened for a second, then another, before thinking, “one of the neighbors must have heard this and called the police.” On my way back to bed I froze, as the second thought entered my head, “bystander effect.”
Quickly as I could I sprinted to my parents room, woke my mother (in my panicked state I had no idea what else to do), and watched nervously as she called the police who were on the scene in moments – unfortunately, just seconds before, the screaming that had been a constant for the last three minutes finally ceased to an uneasy, abrupt silence.
I went to sleep feeling guilty at my slow reaction time – but proud that at least I had done something. That person who’s screams I heard at least had a chance of being helped because of something I had remembered from a Social Psychology class, something that had stirred me to action. Bystander effect.
In Social Psychology we were told about Kitty Genovese:
Despite Genovese’s repeated cries for help, none of the dozen or so people in the nearby apartment building who heard her cries called police for help. The attack first began at 3:20 AM, but it was not until 3:50 AM that someone first contacted police.
Kitty’s murder inspired Social Psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latane to run a series of experiments that found a correlation between the number of people witnessing an emergency situation, and the likelihood of someone taking action to remedy the situation – the more people we perceive as witnessing an emergency, the less likely we are to act.
But why? Darley and Latane believed it had something to do with diffusion of responsibility – or the idea that someone else (in my case, one of my neighbors) will take responsibility for the situation, so we don’t have to. This logic leads to disaster when we fail to realize that, to the other people witnessing this situation, we are that “someone else” who is expected to take action.
I almost fell victim to it, don’t let bystander effect happen to you!
HOW CAN WE BREAK THE BYSTANDER EFFECT?
- If you know what to do, do it. Just being aware of the existence of the Bystander Effect makes you far more likely to be able to break free of it. (Just look at what happened to me!) Don’t let fear take over, don’t assume someone else knows what they’re doing better than you – just act. (The good news is, if you take the first step, people are likely to see you taking actions to help and break through their hesitation as well. Its much easier to jump in to a situation when you’re not taking the first step.)
- If you don’t know what to do or can’t do it yourself, be directive. Calling people out as individuals breaks them from the group mentality and reminds them of their own personal responsibility. If at all possible call people by name (like, “Anna, quick go call 911!“) or by an identifiable characteristic (“You in the green shirt, quick, he needs help!“)
- You could always try yelling “BYSTANDER EFFECT” (although I don’t recommend this as a first resort) and hope that someone else remembers Latane and Darley well enough to understand what you’re saying and be spurred into thought. (If you do this let me know – I have a Social Psych professor who is interested in how this works as a method!)
The bottom line is just do something because somebody has to be the “somebody else” who takes that first step!
The story does have a happy ending, or an embarrassing ending (if you’re me.) The next morning, when I asked my father anxiously for an update – had we heard anything, had they found anyone? – he informed me that he’d heard the same screams, the night before I had… they weren’t human.
I refused to believe him, that is, until my friend Jess jumped on Google and played a barn owl call for me. “AHHH, AHHHH, AHHHHH…” AHA! It all made sense – the uniform nature of the “screams”, the complete lack of words, the fact that the “screams” even took place at all (I was surprised, at the time, that the person’s mouth had not been covered as this attack scene unfolded in my head), the way the “screams” ended abruptly, rather than fading out like someone in pain… it all made sense.
A faster reaction from me wouldn’t have changed a thing, all the cops would have found was a very loud owl … but the lesson still stands because if that had been someone in trouble my mom would have been the only one who called for help: bystander effect.
I don’t think they ever did find the owl.
* Click the owl to hear an approximation of what I heard last night!