“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” –Martin Luther King, Jr. (American Baptist minister and civil-rights leader. 1929-1968)


I’ve been thinking a lot about Kitty Genovese lately. She’s the young woman savagely stabbed to death in 1964 on a New York street with 38 people watching from their apartment windows. As Martin Gansberg reported in The New YorkTimes after the murder, “For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens. Twice their chatter and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out, and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.”

After Genovese’s death, psychologists tried to understand why none of the 38 people watching her die even called the police, much less rushed to her aid. They just watched from the comfort of their living rooms. The bystander effect (or Genovese syndrome, as it came to be called) is a psychological phenomenon where people are less likely to intervene in an emergency situation when others are present than when they are alone. Solitary individuals will typically intervene if another person is in need of help: this is known as bystander intervention. However, researchers were surprised to find that help is less likely to be given if more people are present.

A 1968 study by John Darley and Bibb Latané first demonstrated the bystander effect in the laboratory. The most common explanation is that, with others present, observers all assume that someone else is going to intervene and so they each individually refrain from doing so. People may also assume that other bystanders may be more qualified to help, such as being a doctor or police officer, and their intervention would thus be unneeded. People may also fear "losing face" in front of the other bystanders, being superseded by a "superior" helper, or offering unwanted assistance. Another explanation is that bystanders monitor the reactions of other people in an emergency situation to see if others think that it is necessary to intervene. Since others are doing exactly the same, everyone concludes from the inaction of others that other people do not think that help is needed. This is an example of pluralistic ignorance.

I got a note this week from an acquaintance in which she told me of reports that child victims of the tsunami disaster are being sold into the sex trade and child slavery. “I hope someone can do something about that,” she wrote. The phrase stuck in my mind and I found myself, hours later, wondering who “someone” was. That’s why I started thinking about Kitty Genovese. And what I came to realize, not only in this particular situation in Southeast Asia, but in life in general, is that the “someone” is, at least in part, me – my very self, this one. Truthfully, I may not have the power or influence to affect big world events or stop child slavery, but as Dr. King said, not using my one true voice to protest the evil and wrong and injustice and hatred I see in the world is, in effect, actively participating in it. Or, as one of my favorite American writers put it, “we cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as courses, and they come back to us as effects.” (the most fabulous Herman Melville)

(I HOPE YOU NEVER NEED TO KNOW THIS, BUT…should you ever find yourself in a desperate situation and need help, experts say that a victim may be able to reduce the bystandereffect by picking a specific person in the crowd to appeal to for help rather than appealing to the larger group generally. This may work better, because it makes a person in the crowdfeel personally responsible, instead of being able to diffuseresponsibility).

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” –William James

Fight against pluralistic ignorance. Don’t be a bystander in life. Every day this week, when you find yourself thinking that you hope “they” or “somebody” will do something, ask yourself how you can be even a small part of the “they.” Speak up, help someone.