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(Cinders McLeod/The Globe and Mail)
(Cinders McLeod/The Globe and Mail)

Why good people stand by and let bad things happen Add to ...

You may have already seen the YouTube video of Michael Nodianos – if you have the stomach for it.

In what looks like a basement rec room, the teenager – his cheeks red with alcohol, and looking much younger than his Ohio State T-shirt suggests – wobbles on a chair, firing loathsome jokes to a too-willing audience of boys.

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“That girl,” he says, giggling, is “deader than Obi-Wan Kenobi when Darth Vader cut his head off. Deader than a door nail.”

And this: “She is so raped right now.”

This goes on for 12 minutes, in a video taped the night two football players did indeed rape a 16-year-old girl, who was so drunk she didn’t know what happened until the next day.

There is no victim in the video. It’s unclear whether the perpetrators of the assault are present. Mr. Nodianos is the star here, the rest of the boys (seen only when the one holding the camera laughs so hard he can’t keep it straight) are passive voices from the sidelines.

But then, you can’t get the full story of what went down last August in Steubenville, Ohio, without seeing the crowd who stood on the sidelines. By the time the video was shot, the victim had been taken to at least three parties, attended by dozens of teenagers. She was photographed being carried by her wrists and ankles, clearly unconscious. Between parties, she was sexually assaulted in a car with others watching.

All night long, at all the points when a rape could have been prevented, in a town small enough that teenagers at a summer party would know each other, no one stepped in to help. Last weekend, the perpetrators were convicted in large part because of the digital trail of evidence from hundreds of texts, incriminating video and pictures.

Ohio law makes it a crime not to report knowledge of a felony, such as rape, to the police. But morality has to come into play too. So what happened in Steubenville? Why did so many people document, rather than stop, what was going on? Was it just “human nature,” or were other outcomes possible?

Psychologists talk about the “bystander effect,” the phenomenon in which people in a crowd are less likely to risk their necks for someone in danger. But new research suggests that being in a group can also work to embolden us – to facilitate “acts of moral courage.” And new work is under way to test how, with the right training and education, we might engineer a more positive bystander effect.

The “bystander effect” was first coined in 1968, by two American psychologists, John Darley and Bibb Latane, who began conducting lab experiments which simulated an emergency and then monitored whether people reacted differently alone or in a crowd. Their research was spurred by the prominent murder of Kitty Genovese, a New York woman whose neighbours supposedly ignored her screams for help. That part of the story has since been cast into doubt, but the theory held up in studies, and there have been endless real-life cases that seem to support their findings.

In 2009, people watched as a 15-year-old girl was raped outside a homecoming dance in California. That same year, a man stepped in to help two children being attacked by thugs at a German train station – only to be killed by those thugs in front of witnesses who did not come to his aid. Just last year, a photographer in New York made headlines when, instead of helping a man pushed onto the subway tracks, he took a picture of his last minutes.

Certainly, in the Steubenville context, it’s not hard to recognize key elements of the “bystander effect” at work. First, there is a “diffusion of responsibility,” where witnesses assume someone else, perhaps a friend, will step into take care of the victim. Then there’s “evaluation apprehension,” anxiety about the social cost of intervening (in this case, standing up to football players revered as demigods). The group may also enforce a “pluralistic ignorance,” where witnesses fail to even recognize a crime (if everyone is laughing and texting while a girl is dragged around and abused for kicks, the message is that the behaviour is acceptable).

In Ohio, the witnesses were beer-chugging, peer-pressured teenagers. But adults have proved just as susceptible to the fear of being humiliated or judged for misinterpreting a dangerous situation, overcoming reason and common sense. In one of the most famour bystander experiments, participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire in a room that began filling with smoke. If they were alone, they sought help almost immediately. If they were with a group in which everyone else ignored what was happening, though, the majority of participants squirmed in their seats and, later, many didn’t even report seeing the smoke.

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