The Bystander Effect (And Why I Do Not Want to Live in New York City, Anyway)

This concept – the Bystander Effect and the idea of diffusion of responsibility – has always been ever so fascinating to me, in my psychology courses in college, and ever since. Fascinating, and sometimes sad and bewildering, too. And something that has made me strive to be conscious of myself in moments when there is a crowd and someone looks hurt or in need of assistance, so if it is helpful (and desired), I find a way to do something if it’s in my power and capacity to do so, or at least to offer to do so. A little morsel for thought that I am currently savoring: a friend of a friend recently said something along the lines of “I’ve realized that  help is only real help when you actually want it.”

True enough. In more sweepingly magnanimous moments, I like to think of this as developing one’s humanity, action which engenders compassion. Even if I don’t do anything significant for another person, at least I know for myself that I’m being conscious of the world around me within my capacity.

Around the time I learned about the Bystander Effect, I can remember standing at a PVTA bus stop outside of the main campus of UMass Amherst and watching a biker get hit by a car. Nothing too horrendous, fortunately at low speed, but the guy was visibly and understandably shaken and it turned out he had broken his collar bone. Yikes. But admittedly, much worse could have happened. That’s often the trite truism. A lot of people were standing around, gawking as it were. I saw enough people holding cell phones and so I picked out one guy who held one (I didn’t have one at that point in my life) “Hey, this guy is hurt, can someone -hey, can you call 911?” The guy looked shaken and stammered and said “oh, yes, right… of course!” pulled out of that spectator’s haze we all have found ourselves in, and started to dial. I asked the biker if he wanted to sit down and if he wanted some water, because I didn’t know what the hell else to do, and my impulse to take care was ignited. I didn’t have any medical training at that point. But it happened right in front of me, along with about 30 other people, and I was amazed that no one seemed to immediately react, or interact. Nearly ten years later, this incident still stands out in my memory.

Today, in the Anderson Valley, a redwood tree – its shallow roots loosened by the recent rain fall – fell across the windshield of a middle-aged man’s Volvo.  Luckily, it wasn’t on some deserted stretch of 128, but very close to someone’s house, and it set off the man’s horn. He had to be extracted, but he was talking to the EMTs when they pulled him out. Phew. Just a fraction of an instant sooner, and he would have been completely crushed with the car. I know that it’s not someone I know, though names of patients are not released by the volunteer rescue squad in town, but bless them for the hard work they do, and may the timing be right for the rest of us should any of those ancient giants choose to uproot themselves once again.

Crikey. I guess there are lurking dangers everywhere you go. For me, I find weather and nature more humbling than the horrors of humanity.

On the other hand, I find the idea of encountering people on the trail in the woods sometimes more disturbing than the thought of stumbling across a snake or a bear. Not moose though. Shit, they’re scary.


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