But while human behaviour tends to fall into patterns, they are more complex than we might think. In a recent study, German psychologists pored through the results of more than 100 bystander experiments and data from 7,700 participants going back half a century. They concluded that under certain (rather surprising) circumstances, being in a group can also be a powerful motivator to take action.
It turns out that when a situation is especially dangerous, and when the risk to the person helping a victim is highest, the bystander effect actually melts away. In these cases, researchers theorize, the emergency itself tends to be less ambiguous, there is a greater cost in not helping, and the bystanders expect help from others in the crowd.
One of the most courageous examples is the events on United Flight 93 on 9/11. Realizing what the hijackers intended, a few passengers chose to take action, correctly assumed support from the group, and brought down the plane so it couldn’t take more lives by hitting another populated target.
In fact, even the Genovese case may be more revealing of new thinking than the traditional view of a passive crowd. For decades, the story held that as many as 30 witnesses had heard her screams or seen the attack, and done nothing. But new research has found that many residents didn’t recognize the scream – the nature of the emergency wasn’t clear. Reports now suggest that a few people did dial 911, and an eyewitness called out to stop the attacker, but it was too late.
Figuring out what successfully spurs timely action is the next step for researchers. They are now testing programs designed to improve the odds that bystanders will act.
Giving bystanders specific, non-threatening strategies for stopping bad behaviour – creating a distraction to stop an altercation, or pretending to know the victim – can help. More important, though, is reframing what we consider dangerous situations, by addressing “pluralistic ignorance.”
At the University of Windsor, for example, psychologist Charlene Senn is studying a new campus program to help students recognize the warning signs of sexual assault, so that, unlike the kids in Steubenville, they do not shrug off a drunk girl being led away from a party. It also debunks prevailing myths about rape (that victims are to blame for drinking, or lying, or “asking for it” somehow).
The key is help bystanders recognize troubling behaviour, and feel confident that others will support them if they stand up and act. “We are not talking about prevention at the moment of a sexual assault,” says Ann Coker, a public health researcher at the University of Kentucky who is evaluating a high-school program called Green Dot, which includes motivational speeches and small group workshops to teach practical intervention techniques. “We are talking about behaviour that makes you feel like you should say something.”
It’s also vital to widen the net of responsibility, to make safety everybody’s business. As Prof. Senn says, “There is so much we won’t notice because we don’t feel responsible.”
How responsible we feel for others at risk depends on how closely we relate to them. We are far more likely to help if we see a victim as part of our in-group, and other bystanders as allies. British researchers found that Manchester United fans, for instance, were more likely to help someone in a bar fight if they were wearing Manchester United jerseys. They were also more likely to step in if other bystanders were wearing Manchester jerseys.
Social media can play a part: In Steubenville, technology seemed to distance observers from what they were seeing and reinforce, through texts, that there was nothing alarming about what was happening. But group dynamics can also strengthen our sense of responsibility, that we are being watched by those with shared values.
In a recent American experiment, for instance, participants were asked to make comments on an online forum for people struggling with severe depression. When their names were highlighted onscreen, or if they felt more visible to observers, they left more comments. In other words, a sense of group cohesion spurred action.
In Steubenville, silence was the norm. (Or, too often, when people did speak up, they blamed the victim.) More than a dozen potential witnesses refused to testify. Rather than going to the police, incriminating video was deleted. As the town’s sheriff told The New York Times, “If you could charge people for not being decent human beings, a lot of people would have been charged that night.”
But the law, in these cases, arrives too late, for victims, and even for the perpetrators – as researcher Ann Coker points out, “I would be willing to bet those football players wish someone had intervened that night.”
That’s the “silver bullet,” as she calls it, to uncover the key to making us step in when it really counts, before the damage is done.