Being ‘Herd’…


Scholars might argue that Edmund Burke never said, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” but most of us would agree that whoever said it, it is absolutely true.

The Bystander Effect – or Genovese Syndrome – is a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases where individuals do not offer help in an emergency situation when other people are present. It would appear that the more people present when something bad happens, the less chance there is that anybody will help.

This is a controversial theory first put forward after the much publicised murder of 28 year old Kitty Genovese in 1964. According to reports at the time, 37 people in the New York neighbourhood where Kitty Genovese was attacked, saw her struggle or heard her scream and call for help.  A man shouted from a window which made her attacker run off after he first stabbed her.

But when nobody came to Kitty’s aid, the attacker, 29 year old Winston Mosely, returned.  He found Kitty in the hallway of her apartment building where he raped and murdered her.  During this protracted attack, which lasted more than half an hour, only one person called the police. By the time help arrived, Kitty Genovese was dead.

The controversy as a result of the Kitty Genovese murder gave rise to a number of studies.  And while nowadays there is evidence that the Kitty Genovese murder was sensationalised by the media, the fact is that it’s a phenomenon we all know exists.  We put it down to our materialistic, modern attitudes and our growing selfishness but the explanation is probably not so much associated with modern life as with ancient, instinctive behaviours.

One of the main theories put forward to explain the Bystander Effect is the suggestion that we are predisposed towards ‘herd’ behaviour. This is an instinct that has served us well as a species because let’s face it – if the ‘herd’ begins to run because someone shouts ‘Lion’, then it is definitely safer to run first and ask questions later! The only problem is that it may not be quite as useful a reaction in complex social situations as it is on the Plains.

Another explanation for the Bystander Effect is the idea of ‘diffusion of responsibility’.  This means just what it seems to mean – the more of us there are around, the more diffuse our feelings of personal responsibility.

Hey Man in the Blue Sweater!

But there is a feature of the Bystander effect that is perhaps less well known and that is that it appears to be very easy to overcome.  Simply recognising the possibility that anyone (me, you – anyone) may not intervene in an emergency can mean that we do intervene.  Just that much knowledge can make a difference.  Also, it is well known that, in general, when bystanders are specifically asked for help –Hey man in the blue sweater – they tend to respond positively.   It as if a consciousness of ourselves as individuals seems to generally bring with it not just a myriad personal likes and dislikes and idiosyncrasies but also an awakening of moral and ideological beliefs and even a willingness to help others.

So, here’s the question – does the war and poverty and violence and hatred we see all around us on our planet flourish – at least in part – because we suffer from a global Bystander Effect?  It would seem logical that this might be the case.  After all, if having six or seven people witness an emergency slows down or destroys our individual reaction then what if 6 or 7 billion people see the same thing?  How diffuse must that responsibility feel?

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