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Posted at 6:53 PM ET, 01/24/2011

Overcoming the bystander effect

By Peter Bloom, Alexandria

The Jan. 23 Local Opinions commentary by Allen Haywood, “I was attacked on a Metro platform. Why didn’t you help me?,” brought to our attention, once again, the importance of bystanders taking action when they become aware of someone in danger.

Now and then, we hear stories about bystanders doing just that. Several weeks ago, we learned that the actions of several bystanders during the shootings just outside Tucson saved lives. We remember other dramatic examples, such as Lenny Skutnik’s heroic decision to jump into the icy Potomac River to rescue a drowning survivor of the Air Florida crash in 1982. But too often, we see examples of bystanders standing around witnessing violence, or hearing screams and doing nothing.

This “bystander” effect is most famously associated with the 1964 killing of Kitty Genovese in the Kew Gardens section of Queens. Her cries for help went unheeded by a number of people.

We ask ourselves, what would I do in such a situation? If one bystander acts — by yelling, calling for help or otherwise interfering with the perpetrator — others are more likely to act. When bystanders act, perpetrators are generally discouraged and victims are encouraged. The best scenario is when someone determines what action is needed and assertively tells other bystanders how to help.

These lessons, which have been supported by research, might motivate more of us to act to help others, whether we witness a physical attack, hateful speech, discriminatory behavior, workplace dishonesty, or injustice and oppression in the larger world. As Mr. Haywood concluded, “We are a community . . . let’s remember to watch out for each other.”

By Peter Bloom, Alexandria  | January 24, 2011; 6:53 PM ET
Categories:  D.C., HotTopic, Metro, traffic, transportation  
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Comments

While heroes are nice, most of us are not muscle bound Supermen. I would hesitate to go to the assistance of someone in serious danger like that, because I do not believe, with my health, I could aid them much, much as I would like to. I would certainly call the police, once I was myself in a place of relative safety.

Posted by: Nemo24601 | January 25, 2011 4:29 AM | Report abuse

Nemo24601, are you enough of a muscle-bound superman to dial a cell phone?

Posted by: roblimo | January 25, 2011 6:52 AM | Report abuse

I can't really believe a letter was published in the Wash Post citing, as fact, the Kitty Genovese myth.

The alleged "everyone watched while she dies" scenario, while widely reported, has been thorougly debunked. Horrible fact checking by the Post.

While the letter's intent is nice, facts are facts.

Posted by: gth1 | January 25, 2011 7:41 AM | Report abuse

It's hard to tell exactly, but it appears that Mr Haywood's attackers were 3 African-American 'girls'. Can you imagine the whoop that would be generated if anybody - especially a big strong man - actually injured one of them while trying to stop the attack? Would they sue?

It is a sad commentary on our times but the fact is that a 'Good Samaritan' who comes to the aid of others in a case like this is more likely to find himself in legal hot water than injured per se. And even if he 'wins' hands down, he will still have had to hire lawyers, miss work, etc.

Probably the best anybody could do is call for assistance, maybe take a photograph etc, which is too bad because these 'ladies' should have gotten at least as good as they were giving.

Posted by: dflinchum | January 25, 2011 7:52 AM | Report abuse

How many times have we been told, if a store is being robbed, just give them the money. If you are being mugged, just hand over what they want. Do not resist, leave all action to the police.

This is the price you pay for pacifism. Self-defense is not recommended.

Posted by: kitchendragon50 | January 25, 2011 9:30 AM | Report abuse

The link below is an article from this paper from last Friday about a DC man who tried to step in and help a woman in distress and was killed for his trouble.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/21/AR2011012106944.html

Posted by: bigbadbri | January 25, 2011 9:36 AM | Report abuse

The previous comments are missing the point. Watching out for each other could mean doing as little as dialing 911 instead of video taping the violence on your cell phone to post on YouTube later or alerting the station manager or taking a photo of the attackers to give to the police. None of these things were done. None of the spectators even stuck around to give a description to the police or help out the victim. You don't have to be a muscle bound super hero to be a decent human being.

Posted by: tink712 | January 25, 2011 9:57 AM | Report abuse

Take back your neighborhoods and public spaces. Raise hell, fight, make noise, something. Sometimes you just have to respond and worry about the consequences later. If we allow thugs to intimadate, they will. Take a few out (male or female, swing at me I'll swing back regardless of sex) and they might think twice next time. I understand some folks have physical limitations, but a number of people responding at one time can be useful. As far as folks complaining about a healthy male fighting thug females, hey, if you want to behave like a guy expect to be treated like one. No more free rides.

Posted by: jckdoors | January 25, 2011 10:21 AM | Report abuse

I would have absolutely NO PROBLEM with taking up the fight, especially against filthy negro thugs, if the authorities would only let me take the heads as trophies.

I want to keep what I kill - it's only fair.

Posted by: ecalderon | January 25, 2011 10:56 AM | Report abuse

I would have absolutely NO PROBLEM with taking up the fight, especially against filthy negro thugs, if the authorities would only let me take the heads as trophies.

I want to keep what I kill - it's only fair.

Posted by: ecalderon | January 25, 2011 10:57 AM | Report abuse

We can only hope that the assailant's last moments on earth are painful, hopefully after living in poverty.

Posted by: kenk33 | January 25, 2011 2:06 PM | Report abuse

Should have ounched that fat B--tch in her mouth.

Posted by: PracticalIndependent | January 25, 2011 4:37 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Bloom-

I agree with your sentiments. A sudden eruption of violence in our otherwise very safe society takes most of us by surprise. Bystanders are often paralyzed with incredulousness if not outright denial.

But if one person, one bystander, can break the 'spell', maybe just by yelling "Hey! What's going on here?", I suspect many other fellow citizens would be willing to step in and help as well.

A display of group solidarity can be a very powerful and intimidating thing.

Posted by: jarandeh | January 25, 2011 4:50 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Bloom-

I agree with your sentiments. A sudden eruption of violence in our otherwise very safe society takes most of us by surprise. Bystanders are often paralyzed with incredulousness if not outright denial.

But if one person, one bystander, can break the 'spell', maybe just by yelling "Hey! What's going on here?", I suspect many other fellow citizens would be willing to step in and help as well.

A display of group solidarity can be a very powerful and intimidating thing.

Posted by: jarandeh | January 25, 2011 4:52 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Bloom-

I agree with your sentiments. A sudden eruption of violence in our otherwise very safe society takes most of us by surprise. Bystanders are often paralyzed with incredulousness if not outright denial.

But if one person, one bystander, can break the 'spell', maybe just by yelling "Hey! What's going on here?", I suspect many other fellow citizens would be willing to step in and help as well.

A display of group solidarity can be a very powerful and intimidating thing.

Posted by: jarandeh | January 25, 2011 4:54 PM | Report abuse

The comment posted by gth1 to my letter to the editor, ("The alleged "everyone watched while she dies" scenario, while widely reported, has been thorougly debunked.") is mostly correct. It seems that further research found that only 6-12 people heard Ms. Genovese's screams, at least one yelled out, a few called the police, but the police did not respond in a timely way.

However, the response to these much exaggerated facts, has been profound research about why bystanders do not respond to protect others in danger, and, more importantly, what important results generally take place if bystanders do take assertive action of one kind or another. These important findings have been taught to untold numbers of students over forty-plus years.

Whether these lessons have made a difference in the public's active response to attacks, as well as to injustice occurring locally and globally remains to be seen, but we must keep telling stories about individuals and groups who have had the courage to stand up for what is right, in order to inspire us to be prepared to do the same.

Posted by: pbloom1 | January 25, 2011 7:25 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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