The Bystander Effect and George Floyd

The Unresponsive Bystander - Latane and Darley

The Bystander Effect, included in every introductory psychology textbook and course, refers to the consistent finding that individuals are less likely to help in the presence of others than when they are alone. The more bystanders present, the less likely an individual is to help. This is commonly attributed to a diffusion of responsibility, meaning that an individual in a group reasons that the others in that group will help, diminishing the pressure on the individual to help.

The Bystander Effect is well illustrated by the three Minneapolis police officers who stood by as their colleague Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. They did not attempt to stop Mr Chauvin. But citizen bystanders did try to stop the murder unfolding before them. They pleaded for the police officers to recognize that Mr Floyd was in serious medical trouble and to stop the assault, unfortunately to no avail. Why did these citizens try to save Mr Floyd and the police officers did not? Why did the Bystander Effect hold for the police officers but not apply to the civilians?

A history of the Bystander Effect

To answer this, we take a short walk through the history of the Bystander Effect. In 1964, Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was murdered in a crowded residential neighborhood in Queens. The New York Times reported that dozens of witnesses watched and listened from their windows, and did not so much as call the police to help Ms Genovese [Of note, calling the police in those days required going to the white pages and looking up the precinct phone number. It was not until four years later, in 1968, that the 9-1-1 emergency system debuted in NYC.]. This story is now known to be factually untrue in both detail and gist. Nonetheless, the story’s apocryphal nature was not appreciated at the time and thus the Times version of the story motived psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley to conduct experiments to understand the psychology of such callous disregard for others. They contrived a number of scenarios in which subjects, mostly college students, came in to ostensibly fill out a questionnaire only to be confronted with a problematic situation such as smoke filling the room, cries for help from someone having a seizure [in fact an actor], or the sounds of a child being pummeled [again simulated rather than actual].

Latané and Darley summarized their findings in a fabulous monograph worthy of a Sunday-couch-read, The Unresponsive Bystander: Why doesn’t he help? (Appleton-Century Crofts, 1970; now unfortunately out of print but used copies are typically available).

Latané and Darley compared reactions to the contrived emergency situations between subjects tested alone and those tested with confederates, undergraduates who were part of the research team and acted as though they were subjects but purposely did not help. They consistently found that 70-90% of those tested alone sought help whereas only 10-15% of those tested with confederates did so. These findings fit with a group of police officers standing by as their colleague murdered George Floyd but do not explain why civilian bystanders tried to intervene, counter to what the Bystander Effect would predict.

The reason for the disconnect is that psychology studies on the Bystander Effect have not looked at groups of naïve bystanders which is what the civilians on the street are. Psychology studies have universally used Latané and Darley’s paradigm of studying one naïve subject with one or more confederate bystanders. Thus, psychology studies do not tell us how groups of naïve bystanders will act. For this, we can look to sociology.

A sociological perspective on crowds and helping

Sociologists such as Enrico Quarantelli have established that in disasters, groups of people help others, even strangers, without concern to the race, religion, or political bent of the victim. Rather than descend into a Hobbesian struggle, red in tooth and claw, everyone out for themselves; people step up to help, risking their own lives.

For an account of Quarantelli’s first full scale study of the reaction to a disaster, read Jon Mooallem’s This is Chance! (Penguin Random House, 2020). Within twenty-four hours of the 1964 earthquake in Alaska, a whopping 9.2 on the Richter scale, Quarantelli had a research team in Anchorage. The scientists found that people worked in self-assembled groups, around the clock, to look for the injured and even for the dead. The Quarantelli story is well told and worth reading. But the book’s focus is on Genie Chance, a part-time radio operator, who broadcast nearly continuously for days while also playing a critical role in organizing recovery efforts.

By now, stories of people working to help others in times of disaster are commonplace. Todd Beamer, Jeremy Glick, Tom Burnett and Mark Bingham and others fought the hijackers of Flight 93, thereby saving potentially thousands of lives on the ground. Rather than run away and hide, Anthony Sadler, Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos ran toward a gunman on their train and disarmed him. After the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, bystanders rushed in to look for survivors in cars crushed by a collapsed freeway. They worked in groups in potentially lethal conditions – the ground had not yet settled – to extract survivors and bodies.

In one of the only psychology studies to look at helping in natural, non-experimental settings without confederates; psychologists led by Richard Philpot examined video footage from security cameras in the United Kingdom, Netherlands and South Africa. Bystanders intervened to help in 91% of 219 hostile encounters.

Strictly a test of the Bystander Effect requires a comparison between the behavior of a person alone with that of a person in the presence of bystanders. Philpot et al did not perform such a comparison. There were in fact an average of sixteen bystanders present across the conflicts analyzed. Nonetheless, the finding that more than nine in ten groups helped makes any suppressive effect on helping mathematically unimpressive.

Police as confederates

In sum, the classic Bystander Effect, with its suppressive effect on helping, only occurs with confederate bystanders. On the other hand, bystanders who are naïve facilitate helping. All of this leads to the conclusion that police officers serve as confederates whereas civilians do not.

Helping is costly

As an aside, I consider why police officers may be predisposed to not help.

Helping is costly. In cold economic terms, it is resource-depleting. Virtually everyone, even those who pride themselves on their empathic nature, has walked by a homeless person without stopping. Indeed, if we helped whenever and wherever we encountered need, we’d be broke and never reach home with any emotional energy for our loved ones.

In sum, the classic Bystander Effect, with its suppressive effect on helping, only occurs with confederate bystanders. On the other hand, bystanders who are naïve facilitate helping. All of this leads to the conclusion that police officers serve as confederates whereas civilians do not.

People in helping professions – physicians, therapists, nurses – are sandwiched between the pull of their innate feelings of empathy and the need to keep down personal costs. Without protection from the daily onslaught of suffering, they would burn out fast. For example, we know from the work of my colleague Jean Decety that physicians do not feel vicarious pain when viewing an injection, presumably saving physicians’ empathic reserves for more momentous occasions such as sharing a terminal prognosis with a patient.

Police are exposed to conflict, protestations of innocence, and pleas for mercy, day in and day out. No surprise then that police officers have become inured to the words of those they apprehend. But it would appear that this stonewalling has become institutionalized so that a police officer learns to keep rank, to tolerate behavior that they themselves would not do. It is this culture that allows otherwise well-meaning officers to turn a blind and callous eye toward the excesses of their fellow officers.

The police become confederates through the active discouragement of intervention. Two Buffalo police officers pushed 75-year old Martin Gugino to the ground where he lay motionless with blood pooling next to his ear. One of the officers then started to bend over Mr. Gugino in apparent concern but another police officer grabbed him by his shirt and stood him back up. The message was clear and more police officers walked past Mr Gugino who subsequently spent weeks in the hospital with head trauma and a fractured skull. Vitriolic retaliation is another tactic for enforcing police colidarity. After accusing fellow officers of using unjustified force, Cariol Horne and Lorenzo Davis were ostracized by their colleagues and ultimately fired from the Buffalo and Chicago police forces, respectively.

Solutions

There are two basic ways to address the problem of police brutality. Ferret out and get rid of the Derek Chauvin-s in the police force or make police officers police themselves. Most reforms are aimed at the former. But trying to identify the bad apples in the police force only works for repeat offenders and does nothing to prevent first tragedies. On the other hand, breaking the obstructionist culture of police has great and immediate potential for change.

Unfortunately, I fear that police officers’ solidarity is unassailable and consequently that the problem of police confederates is intractable. I hope I am wrong but I do not see that the solidarity of police culture can be changed easily or rapidly. It may be necessary to blow the system up and start anew.

8 Comments »

  1. Good to hear from you. Thank you for still posting/ I was just reading the about trump golfing in the post. Needed this.

    Semper fi

    On Fri, Jul 3, 2020, 19:12 The brain is sooooo cool! wrote:

    > Peggy Mason posted: “The Bystander Effect, included in every introductory > psychology textbook and course, refers to the consistent finding that > individuals are less likely to help in the presence of others than when > they are alone. The more bystanders present, the less likely” >

    Like

  2. The last sentence sums it up. It is entrenched and reinforced by police unions & fraternal orders of. Watch 16 Shots. Look at the officers just fired for acting out, jokingly, a police murder of a black man in Aurora, CO.
    Start over & reframe the goals.

    Like

  3. Dear Professor …..So good to hear from you.

    Interesting article. I hope something good comes out of this tragedy, for its about time. in most other countries, discrimination is religious based, where as in US its based on skin color. Humanity needs to grow up.

    Dolat

    Like

  4. Maybe we will see a system psychology evolve as we realize that more traditional social and economical psychology creates systems in society that becomes mroe fixed, and also like you explain such systems can be actively taught and encouraged in certain areas like Medical or policing. Understanding such processes might make us better at developing better doctors and police that are both able to be empathic when needed but also somewhat immune so that they do not burn out.

    Like

  5. always good to hear from you. hope you are well in Chicago. I took your Neurobiology class on line quite some time ago and bought your book. I’m just a hacker, but I have learned a lot from you! I’m in Virginia and we are all about flipping the country blue.

    Thank you. Sincerely, Stair Calhoun http://www.networknova.org Twitter: @networkvirginia Instagram: network_nova Meetup: NetworkNoVA Network NoVA YouTube BADASS Briefings BADASS Boutique #WinningistheONLYoption #WhenWeVoteWeWin

    On Fri, Jul 3, 2020 at 7:13 PM The brain is sooooo cool! wrote:

    > Peggy Mason posted: “The Bystander Effect, included in every introductory > psychology textbook and course, refers to the consistent finding that > individuals are less likely to help in the presence of others than when > they are alone. The more bystanders present, the less likely” >

    Like

  6. Thanks for sharing all of this with us. I’m most interested by the very high probability that a group of naive strangers will step up and help.

    Just when I think humanity is irredeemable (SO much NOISE last night; getting worse every year), you present this info that we can sometimes behave well.

    Thanks.

    Like

  7. thanks so much for this valuable information The story with the rats reminds me of racism….of which there is too much of in this world Sincere thanks Sue

    On Sat, 4 Jul 2020 at 02:12, The brain is sooooo cool! wrote:

    > Peggy Mason posted: “The Bystander Effect, included in every introductory > psychology textbook and course, refers to the consistent finding that > individuals are less likely to help in the presence of others than when > they are alone. The more bystanders present, the less likely” >

    Like

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