by Lauren Lips
For a bystander, it might seem easier not to help someone in need, but you can break the standard and make the world a better place.
A few weeks ago while driving with my boyfriend on Fifth Street Highway in Muhlenberg, I was stopped at the red light and I noticed an elderly gentleman trying to make his way up the curb to the bus stop. With his bags and walker in tow, he was obviously struggling. I felt bad for him. I started to move something from my lap so I could get out of the car and help him. No sooner had I opened the door than the man fell to the ground. His walker folded underneath him and his grocery bags spilled all over the crosswalk. As I was gathering the man’s belongings and helping him off of the ground, only one other woman came to his aid.
Everyone in their cars were honking and yelling for us to get out of the road, seemingly unconcerned with the old man who had just toppled to the ground. I was appalled that so many people only noticed the traffic ahead of them, instead of an opportunity to help this man.
This incident made me furious. It made me wonder why all of those people were in such a rush. What was more important than a fellow human’s well-being? I’m not saying that I expected everyone to rush to this man’s aid, but I certainly thought that more than two Good Samaritans would have acted.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not always the most helpful person. I’m not always the stranger who jumps out of the car and carries people to safety. And that’s a curious thing about us humans: sometimes we’re willing to help; other times we turn a blind eye. But have you ever stopped to think about why? In an emergency, we may feel the urge to stand idly by – whether it’s the way someone looks, a belief that someone else will lend a hand, or simply feeling like it’s not your problem. But there’s one reason in particular why we often fail to help those in need: the bystander effect.
The bystander effect is arguably the most common reason many people freeze or turn a blind eye when confronted with someone who needs help. Researchers have found that the more people present at the time of an emergency situation, the less likely it is for one of them to help. Strange, isn’t it? You would think the more people present, the better the chances of a positive outcome. But that’s definitely not the case.
According to brandongaille.com, the likelihood that someone will help when 4 or more bystanders are present is roughly 31%, while the likelihood of someone helping when they think they are the only witnesses to an emergency is over 80%. Even stranger is the fact that the bystander effect is equal across all demographics and age groups.
One of the most famous examples of the bystander effect took place in 1964 in Queens, New York. A young woman, Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was stabbed 13 times outside of her apartment building in the early morning hours of March 13 by Winston Moseley (who died earlier this March in prison). According to an article published by Martin Gansberg, there were over 35 “respectable, law-abiding citizens” and not one of them phoned police until approximately 30 minutes later. This version of the murder told by Gansberg made national headlines and, even though it has since been mostly debunked, it began a maelstrom of national discussion about bystander intervention.
There are many reasons why the bystander effect exists. Maybe you are worried about your own safety, worried that the risks outweigh the rewards. You might be busy looking for social cues and wanting to do what everyone else is doing – even if what they’re doing is nothing. And perhaps the biggest influential factor of all is assuming someone else is going to step in.
But the good news is there are many ways you can help break the effect. Be mindful: don’t always assume someone else is going to help. Be the one to help. You can enroll in one of the many training programs for things like CPR and self-defense that can help you learn how to better react in emergency situations so you can help without feeling overwhelmed or frightened. Also, a lot of communities have passed Good Samaritan laws that provide legal protection if you were attempting to assist someone and made an error in the process that resulted in physical or property damage.
You have the power to be better than the hasty drivers on Fifth Street Highway, and instead be that good Samaritan. You can break this norm of the bystander effect, if not to help a fellow citizen, then to feel better about yourself. You never know if you’ll end up like that old man and need a kind stranger’s assistance.