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Crime & Justice

How to avoid the 'bystander effect': Point to a specific person, demand help




Screenshot from video, as seen on ABC7.
Screenshot from video, as seen on ABC7.
Screenshot from video, as seen on ABC7.

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A woman is dragged out of a store in broad daylight by a hammer-wielding man and the whole thing is caught on camera. But despite there being witnesses to the incident, no one steps in to help.

This is just one example of what psychologists refer to as the “bystander effect,” a phenomenon made famous by the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in New York. In that case, 38 people allegedly witnessed the attack but didn't call police. 

It may have happened again Wednesday night at a convenience store in Exposition Park. Surveillance camera video shows a man pulling the female clerk out of the store, past someone who looks like a mail carrier and at least one other person who was outside at the time, though it’s unclear exactly how many people witnessed the incident. The suspect forces the clerk into the passenger seat before driving away without anyone stepping in to help.

San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge says social psychology research shows that, despite what you may think, this is actually to be expected.

“The more people who were witnessing one of these dangerous or emergency events, actually the less likely that anyone will intervene,” says Twenge. “If people are alone when they witness such an event, they’re actually more likely to intervene.

Twenge says the more people witness a scene like Wednesday's, the less responsibility each feels. Onlookers tend to assume someone else will do something, or if they look around and see no one is moving to intervene, they won’t either. The silver lining to this story is that the clerk escaped from the car and witnesses were able to describe the car to police, who arrested the suspect near his home.

So, what should you do if you find yourself in a situation like this?

“The advice that’s usually given is first you want to specifically point to one person, says Twenge. “Don’t just yell, ‘Somebody help me!’ Point to a specific person. ‘You, in the red shirt! Call 9-1-1!’ or ‘You! Help me!’ Or say, ‘I don’t know this person!’ or something to clarify the seriousness of the situation.”

AirTalk listener Elliot in Altadena shared a story about a time he saw a large, muscular man hit a woman outside a Miami coffee shop. As the man went into the store and the woman sat crying in the car, Elliot says he and several others wanted to help, but didn’t know how.

“We called the police, but I was at a loss as to what to do. I couldn’t beat this guy up. Three of us probably couldn’t beat him up. He was a very strong, aggressive guy and I didn’t know what the right action was. I wanted to intervene but I didn’t feel like I could.”

William in Palm Desert says when he found himself in a similar situation, watching a man beating a woman at a bus stop, he called the police right away and followed the man until they arrived.

“All I could think when I was watching this is, ‘What if this was my wife, my mother, my sister, somebody in my family being in that situation?” I don’t even remember having the thought of whether to intervene. It was an immediate reaction to grab the phone, start making noise, and let that person know someone was witnessing it.”

Amy in Van Nuys says she’s found herself in situations like this several times, where domestic violence was involved, and each time she intervened.

“So often we feel like it’s not our place because this is a private relationship, whereas maybe if we knew that they didn’t know each other, we feel then it’s appropriate [to step in]. But if the man knows the woman, we shouldn’t get involved because he’s beating her? I just don’t understand that thinking. And to me, it’s worth the risk of potentially being hurt, because I can’t walk away and not intervene. Even had I been hurt, that’s still worth more to me than had I walked away and not gotten hurt but she had and I knew I could’ve prevented it.”

Twenge adds that while these types of situations are rare, it can be helpful to think about what you’d do ahead of time. Things can often get confusing in the situation, she says, so it’s good to be aware of the fact that you might be less inclined to help if other people are around.

Guest: 

Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University; She is author of the book, “Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before” (Free Press, 2006)