Saturday, June 10, 2006

In praise of the Good Samaritan

My conservatory. Copyright WebWeaver ProductionsThe other night I was watering my plants in the conservatory when I heard an ominous crunching metal sound from the road below my house. I went outside to check, and saw a guy in the middle of the road struggling to get his motorbike back into an upright position.

Fortunately there wasn't much traffic around, and the closest car was far enough away to slow down safely. I watched the biker slowly wheel his machine towards the side of the road, and the approaching car stopped to make sure he was OK. After a brief conversation the car moved off, and the guy continued pushing his bike onto the pavement.

I watched for a few moments longer, and then went back into the house to refill my watering can, confident that the guy was unhurt. Virtually every car that passed him had stopped, and it looked as though each driver had asked if he was OK, and then moved on once they'd made sure he was.

However, when I went back out again I could see that the guy had walked over to the fence on the far side of the pavement, and was now kneeling in front of it with his head in his hands. He looked in quite a bad way. I dashed back into the house, grabbed my cellphone and raced down my garden path and onto the street.

As I walked quickly along the pavement, I could see him crawling across the path on his hands and knees. I was overtaken by a car that screeched to a halt just beyond him, and then reversed back. We both reached him at the same moment - I fell to my knees in front of him, and the car driver leaned across to call through his open window, asking urgently if the guy was OK.

It's a funny thing, when you’re in a situation like that, what stays in your mind and what doesn't. I couldn't tell you what happened to the car - I was so focused on the guy on the ground that I have no idea how long the car driver stuck around. I guess he figured I had it under control and didn't need any help, but I don't remember him leaving.

The guy with the bike was in shock, and his hand was bloody from a deep cut on his finger, which was quite badly swollen. I could see the tears on his eyelashes. He was shaking. And he wouldn't let me help him.

Yes, he was fine. No, there were no bones broken. Yes, he could wiggle his fingers. No, he didn't want to take his helmet off. No, there was no-one I should call. No, he only lived round the corner and didn't need my help pushing his bike home - although it was scraped and bashed in along one side it would still run. Poor guy! Although he was bashed, bruised and bleeding I think he was more embarrassed than anything else - first by coming off his bike, and then being caught crying by some strange woman offering unneeded assistance.

As I walked back to my house, having watched him get back on his bike and wobble off up the road, I thought about my instinctive need to at least attempt to be a Good Samaritan. And I thought about all those drivers who had also stopped to make sure he was OK.

It reminded me of my psychology studies years ago, when we learned about a social phenomenon called diffusion of responsibility, and more specifically, bystander apathy.

Kitty Genovese, picture from the New York Times article: Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the PolicePerhaps the most famous (and shocking) example of bystander apathy took place in New York in 1964, when a woman called Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death by a mentally ill serial rapist and murderer, Winston Moseley. The attack took place near the apartment block where Kitty lived, and lasted more than 30 minutes. 38 people were home in the apartment block that night, and not a single one came to her aid.

At one stage, having stabbed Kitty twice, Moseley left the scene, when a neighbour shouted at him to "let that girl alone". Ten minutes later he returned, and searched the area for Kitty, who had meanwhile begun crawling towards her own apartment. When he found her, now out of sight of the street and of anyone in the building who might have heard the original attack, he continued his attack, stabbing her several more times. As she lay dying he attempted to rape her.

Subsequent media coverage sensationalised the story, and perhaps unfairly laid blame at the doors of those 38 people who didn't help Kitty - most of whom claimed not to have been aware that anything had happened, and none of whom could have seen the attack in its entirety. However, it is certainly likely that a number of people heard or saw at least part of the attack, and the fact remains that no-one did anything - apparently because everyone assumed that someone else would take responsibility and come to Kitty's aid.

The story caught the attention of psychologists and this phenomenon came to be known as the bystander effect, or Genovese Syndrome.

"Diffusion of responsibility is a social phenomenon which tends to occur in groups of people above a certain critical size when responsibility is not explicitly assigned." Wikipedia

Bystander apathy is an example of this, where "a group of peers who act or, through inaction, allow events to occur which they would never allow if alone". Wikipedia

Because I'm aware of this, I've gone out of my way on a number of occasions to NOT be affected by bystander apathy, but instead to help - when a guy passed out amongst a crowd during a concert; by a bus stop where many people were studiously ignoring the unconscious homeless man lying on the bench; and on a busy street when an old man had a heart attack and people simply passed him by.

I'd like to think that all those people who stopped to offer help the other night would have done the same thing if they'd been in a crowded street during the day. I'd like to think that in New Zealand, we're more likely to offer help than not - although I can't be sure - because that bus stop incident actually took place in Wellington.

Faces of Dissent. Copyright Ali Moayedian 2003. amazes me that people can behave in this way, but we do. As a society we sometimes allow our leaders to get away with things we completely disapprove of (George Bush and Tony Blair, I'm looking at you again!), and yet sometimes we aren't motivated enough to get up off our backsides and actually do much about it until it's too late. On an individual level we are capable of completely ignoring someone laying unconscious nearby, because we "don't want to get involved" or because we think it's someone else's problem or responsibility.

I'd like to think that anyone who reads this story would stop and help next time they're in a similar situation - if only because you realise that if you don't do something, it's likely that no-one else will either.

What's your community like? Do people help each other, or are they more likely to turn away and hope that someone else will do the right thing? Do you think people in small communities are more likely to help than those living in large cities? Are some nations more "helpful" than others? And what can we as individuals and as a society do to overcome this strange aspect of human behaviour and instead exhibit civil courage?

Those links again:

Technorati tags: , , , , , .


The ConCLAYve-Nan said...

Great blog as usual. As a New Yorker I remember the Kitty Genovese story so well. It always represented the epitome of public apathy. Of course, years later, I recognize the misleading misconceptions perpetrated by the media. But the damage had already been done. I always wonder how Hillary Clinton can be villified by some for "It Takes A Village" -- when anyone who has read it can understand easily that we can "collectively" improve the way the world raises it's children - and how we can care for one another.