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Everyday superheroes

On June 24th, 2020

We’re still reeling with amazement over the case of Patrick Hutchison, the black bystander who, in the midst of an ugly clash between Black Lives Matter and far right protesters, lifted a far-right member to safety. He’s been on morning TV and lauded as an extraordinary anomaly – a true-life Superman.

And the reason we’re so amazed is that we believe – and have been told to believe – that in a crisis like this, people stand by and don’t help.

This view of the world has existed since 1964 when, in a brutal attack lasting over an hour, twenty-eight-year-old Kitty Genovese was repeatedly stabbed while thirty-eight of her neighbors in Queens, either witness to the attack or within earshot of her screams, reportedly did nothing to help.

Genovese’s murder and her neighbors’ indifference provoked endless headlines and spawned a great deal of social psychological research into what has been called ‘the Bystander Effect’: why people stand by and do nothing when another person is in trouble.

At the time, the research concluded that, if people are clustered together in some sort of group, there is a ‘diffusion of responsibility’; people are less likely to help than they would if they were alone because they wait until someone else volunteers to help first. Witnesses are even prone to deriding the character of the victim of misfortune to assuage their guilt at not lending a hand.

The innate desire of people to help strangers was put to the test by a group of post-graduate students at Columbia University. For more than two months four teams of students had ridden the crowded IND Eighth Street A train from 59th Street Station in New York City, bound for Harlem and the Bronx between 11 am and 3 pm.

They deliberately chose that route because there were no stops between 59th Street and 125th Street, which meant that for seven and a half minutes a portion of the approximately 4,450 men and women who traveled those trains during those hours would be captive audience to an emergency situation.

Each team of students contained a ‘victim’ — a ‘model’, who was to come to the victim’s aid if none of the bystanders did, plus two women to record the data as unobtrusively as possible.

The victim came in two guises: either as a disabled person carrying a cane or a drunk reeking of alcohol and carrying a bottle in a paper bag. A minute after the ride began, the victim was to stagger forward and collapse on the floor, and the model was to wait a predetermined amount of time before jumping in to help if none of the passengers did first.

In most cases, the model didn’t need to come forward. Help was immediate and forthcoming with both types of victims. The victim with the cane received help 95 per cent of the time, and even the drunk, who put some people off, nevertheless received help 50 per cent of the time.

The race of the victim didn’t seem to matter; the one student victim who was black received help just as often as the white victims. The number of other people in the subway car also seemed to have no bearing on a bystander’s willingness to come forward; in nearly two-thirds of the trials, two, three, or even more Good Samaritans rushed to help.

The conclusion was inescapable and also challenged our assumptions about the Genovese Syndrome (which has since been discredited as a case of bad reporting): ‘People do, in fact, help with rather high frequency,’ the Columbia University authors concluded.

That may be an understatement. A new study run by Lancaster University in the UK and the University of Copenhagen, among other places, filmed a series of real-life conflicts on surveillance cameras and discovered that in 90 percent of cases, at least one person came forward to help.

And rather than a ‘diffusion’ of responsibility, the larger the crowd witnessing the event, the more likely someone was to intervene.

The Lancaster University team gathered surveillance videos of more than 200 real-life public conflicts in Lancaster, Amsterdam and Cape Town, in South Africa.

Richard Philpot, the lead author of the study, and his colleagues were genuinely amazed by how many people were everyday heroes. In one video, a woman attempted to block an attacker by putting up both hands; in others, observers actually pulled attackers of would-be victims.

Despite the difference in violence levels among the three cities, the rate of intervention was similar.

Another review of a batch of studies on bystander behavior shows that the more dangerous the situation, the more likely that every person witnessing it will intervene. As a psychologist Zeno Franco of the Medical College of Wisconsin, an expert on heroism, observes: ‘the everyday heroism effect, or instinct to act on behalf of others, is also very powerful.’

The British public heard about that that last week, when a would-be terrorist brandishing a large knife violently attacked three men having a picnic in a park in Reading, Greg Wilton, who was having a picnic with his wife and three friends, heard the commotion and rushed over to the victims, placing them in the recovery position and attempting to staunch the bleeding.

There are still some questions about bystander behavior: does it only have to do with situations out of the ordinary? Why do we pass by a homeless person without even looking but jump to somebody’s defense in an attack?

But one thing is clear: Even in that symbol of hard-boiled urban indifference – a packed New York subway — people helped each other out, no matter their race, the vast majority of the time. The Subway Samaritan study and the Lancaster University studies suggests that, when observing someone else in trouble, most people will instinctively come to his or her aid. In many of us the desire to help is so strong that we enter a burning plane without thinking.

Comments

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3 responses to “Everyday superheroes”

  1. George S Mycroft says:

    I see the day when humanity knows how truly beautiful and utterly interconnected it is, when "bystander" is a thing long forgotten in the distant past. In our collective evolution, I suspect that we've reached a point such as Buckminster Fuller talked about — sometimes you have to take a leap of faith; you cannot cross a chasm in two small steps. Humanity collectively stands on the edge of such a chasm now — and we are starting to see many more of those with faith leaping across.

  2. Hannah says:

    That story about NYC in 1964 took place before 9/11. I believe the world and all of us in it have changed since 9/11. And we are changing still now, going through a transformation with Covid-19. Human beings on on an evolutionary trajectory, which has to be factored in when doing the science of behavior.

  3. Heather says:

    Thank you for this inspiring story about these encouraging studies. I saw the news report of the man who carried the other man to safety during the protest, and was happy to know that there are some people who will help others.

    It is wonderful to know that this happens more often than not. When I think about videos where people were beaten during the protests, it is usually in solitary situations, where no one is around to help and it was caught on surveillance.

    More often than not, someone has stepped in to stop the beatings, or to help the individual. While the media tries to convince us that people are inherently bad, it is good to know that this is not true, and there is proof of the exact opposite. Thank you for this story!

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