How the 'bystander effect' brings out the worst in us

If you saw a fellow human in strife, would you come to their aid?
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If you saw a fellow human in strife, would you come to their aid?

OPINION: There are at least 10 different nationalities, six different languages, nearly as many backstories. All spat out from a subway train into suburban Brooklyn. We join the commuters shuffling out of the station. Everyone seems grumpy – with one another, the harsh sunlight, the effort of wiping Friday night from their heads and the sleep out of their eyes.

It's early on a Saturday in late May. Already the heat is like something you could trip over. We've come in search of the Brooklyn Flea Market. It's an hour-long round trip from Manhattan that my husband doesn't want to make, but I've wanted to visit this market since I saw a programme about it on TV.

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I'm unprepared for how hipster it is: tattoos, man-buns, jeans rolled up as if in anticipation of a flood. There's a lot of air-kissing and Oh-My-God-ing. I try on a dress, ignoring the yellow stains in the armpits; it smells of mothballs and someone else's sadness. I spend what I think is a week's grocery money on a vintage map of New York, only to discover when I get home that I've miscalculated the exchange rate and it's actually three weeks'.

My husband says since we've come all this way we're going to Home Depot (Bunnings to the power of 10), to buy some ridiculous window film we can't get in New Zealand. The internet told him it will magically make our freezing Wellington villa warm. It's too hot to argue so we walk the seven blocks slowly, trying not to drink too much water so that we won't need to pee.

I'm distracted by a skateboarder who wears his jeans too low and gets too close. I clutch my handbag closer to my chest, and then immediately feel bad about doing so. I don't see the bloke until I'm almost on top of him: he's lying in a bus-stop, his bike askew, one wheel bent, the other spinning furiously in the air.

He's black, his skin so dark it has almost a bluish tinge. His head is wedged under the plastic seat, the kind that's never big enough to sit comfortably on, his long limbs arranged awkwardly across the concrete. He wears a pained expression, as if still bracing himself for impact. There's a small pool of blood behind his head, another smudge of crimson under his nose.

The skateboarder has long gone to wherever it is baggy-jean-wearing skateboarders go but the footpath is dotted with a few pedestrians, all of whom walk by without a second glance. Next to us are six lanes of traffic, but no one has bothered to look at the bus-stop or the gormless tourists staring at the bloke on the ground, wondering that the hell to do.

I can see his chest rise and fall, I know he's not dead. But I'm frozen on the spot, stuck in a limbo of shock and helplessness. Should we try and move him? Should we call an ambulance? Numbers dance through my head – is the emergency number here 111, like it is at home? Or is it 999 or 911? I'm sure characters in movies bark commands like: "Call 911." Will my New Zealand phone even work here? Thoughts get stuck to each other as they zip through my head.

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I look at my husband who's as conflicted as I am.

"What happens if it's a set-up and he attacks us or he's in a gang and they attack us," he mumbles.

Or I think that's what he says: I feel like I'm under water, where sounds are muffled and time is at a crawl. And then I think, we watch too many bad movies.

"No one else is doing anything, maybe this kind of thing happens all the time around here," I reply, noting as soon as the words are out of my mouth how ridiculous that sounds: this appears to be the kind of suburb where high-earning professionals with unnaturally white teeth retreat when it's time to raise a family.

As if on cue, a blonde couple with an angelic-looking child walk past. Even their dog is blonde, a shaggy retriever wearing a stars-and-stripes bandanna. They don't look our way.

An elderly woman muttering to herself in a language only she can understand stops next to us. Despite the heat, she's dressed in layers of brightly clashing clothes, like a colourblind witch let loose in an op shop.

She spits in the direction of the injured bloke and keeps going. This day is getting stranger and stranger.

"He doesn't seem that bad, let's go," mumbles my husband, a man who once leaped out of a hotel bed to intervene in a nearby domestic dispute.

I nod numbly and we walk a few metres to Home Depot, the low hum of shame ringing in my ears. It isn't a race-based decision, I have brown skin and know what it is to be judged for that. It's more a feeling of fear and indecisiveness, our moral compasses held back by invisible restraints. We don't know what to do, so we do nothing.

It's what psychologists call the Bystander Effect. This is the phenomenon where individuals freeze or go into shock when observing someone in distress and don't offer to help.

Evolutionary biology suggests that our natural genetic instinct is to behave in an altruistic way if someone is in trouble but, according to the Bystander Effect, when other people are around, the less likely it is someone will come forward to help, especially when no one else is doing anything about it.

The term was first coined by social psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley in 1964, after New York bar manager Kitty Genovese was sexually assaulted and murdered outside her apartment in Queens while numerous onlookers did nothing to intervene. The New York Times reported that there may have been as many as 38 witnesses who watched the whole thing and didn't help as they didn't want to get involved.

In fact, it wasn't until two hours later that someone came to check on their neighbour, who died on the way to hospital. When apprehended, serial killer Winston Moseley was asked why he killed Genovese in front of so many people.

"I knew they wouldn't do anything," he said.

"People never do."

Latane and Darley believe there are three factors at play with the Bystander Effect: the first is audience inhibition, which makes us fear that taking action will be viewed negatively by other people.

The second is social influence, which leads us to assume that if no one else is helping, then there's no need to do anything. And the third most important factor is what they called diffusion of responsibility: the belief that if no one else is doing anything then why should we?

The characteristics of the victim can also have an impact, with subsequent research showing that people are more likely to help those they perceive to be similar to them, including others from their own racial or ethnic groups. Women, in particular, are more likely to receive more help than men but this varies according to appearance: researchers say more attractive and femininely dressed women tend to receive more help from passersby, perhaps because they fit the gender stereotype of the "vulnerable female".

Not that it helped the 15-year-old who was gang-raped in California in 2009 outside a homecoming dance while 20 people watched.

Or the woman in Philadelphia who was recorded being beaten and punched by a man for more than 20 minutes. In the recording, people can be seen talking on their phones while others chat and laugh and wander in and out of the frame. The bystander who recorded the video said the police had already been called and he didn't want to jump in, be a hero and get hurt.

"You know it's bad out there," he told TV cameras.

Perhaps one of the most shocking instances is the 2-year-old girl in China who wandered away from her family's hardware store and was hit by a passing van. While Wang Yue lay injured in the street, 18 people passed by without stopping to help. She was eventually hit by a second vehicle which also didn't stop. A passing rubbish collector finally moved the infant out of the street and called for help. A week later, Wang Yue died in hospital.

None of which I knew when we turned our backs on the injured bloke in the Brooklyn bus-stop. Feeling sick and numb, we disconsolately wandered the isles of Home Depot looking for the window film. It turns out the internet was wrong: the window film wasn't the right size or type and our trek was all in vain.

As we left the store, the injured bloke was being loaded into an ambulance. Two burly EMTs helped him onto a gurney with a gentleness that belied their bulk. He was awake, his eyes darting madly around. A policewoman kept asking him his name, taking time with her sentences.

Someone must have dialled the correct numbers, someone far more courageous than us. Someone who was able to break through the fog and say: "This person needs help and I should be the one to do it."

I still think about that day and how I could have, should have, acted and didn't. How I let fear get the better of me. I allowed the inaction of others to cloud my judgement and ignored the basic duty we have to one another as human beings. I just hope that the next time I'm faced with an emergency, I'll do the right thing.

 - Sunday Magazine

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