The Bystander Effect

If you have ever seen the show “What Would You Do,” you know as an audience you have to suffer through set-up bystanders witnessing a horrific or shameful act and not doing anything about it.  Then, at the end of the episode, hidden cameras finally capture a good citizen executing a noble intervention.  There’s lots of tears, jeers and cheers.  It is really the perfect recipe for reality TV.  But real reality paints a different story about what people think they would do versus what they actually do.  While the majority of the “What Would You Do” audience may want to align themselves to modern day vigilantes (or at the very least humans with a conscience) their perception may not be accurate.  

The term “Bystander Effect” or “Genovese Syndrome” was coined by psychologists after a gruesome murder case in 1964.  According to a New York Times article published two weeks after 28-year old Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death outside a building in Queens, NY, thirty-eight witnesses saw or heard her screams for help but no one called the police or came to her aid. It is important to note, over the past two decades, the New York Times has called its own reporting “flawed” and the amount of witnesses may have been exaggerated.  OK, fine.  Does that mean it was acceptable that five witnesses did nothing? Three? One?  

If you think you can chalk the enablement up to the times (and that’s what it is, friends, enablement).  Think again. Fast forward to September of 2019 and the savage beating and stabbing death of 16- year old Khaseen Morris. He was ambushed by three other teens on his way home from school. Not only did bystanders do nothing to help him, they FILMED the attack. Social media can be used productively in a plethora of ways. When the temptation to create a viral video or to garner thousands of “likes” comes at the expense of another person’s health, well-being, or even their very life, that is a crime.

While the anonymity of social media gives people the courage to speak their mind or perhaps engage in a verbal sparring match, seeing something and saying something when it actually matters is moral intuition on a steep decline. The constant threads of vile and violent images have actually desensitized bystanders further.  Their camera or smartphone now acts as a barrier—a way not only to make a place for themselves in a sea of attention grabbing and shocking videos but a way to make these incidents seem less “real.” Whether it’s a schoolyard fight or an attack on a subway, horrific things happening while crowds of people are not just complacent, they are actually players in what has become an inhumane online game; a game not restricted to teens looking for social media affirmation. Keep reading. 

The Bystander Effect easily translates to recent abuse cases. In April of 2019, David and Louise Turpin pled guilty to beating, starving, torturing and holding 12 of their children captives in their California home for years. By this time, the children were adults but they were so emaciated they still looked like young children. After the arrests, several neighbors admitted noticing odd things about the family such as the children “marching in circles for hours in an upstairs bedroom,” and that they would only see the Turpins leaving home with the kids at night. One neighbor said “My weirdest thought was that they were selling the kids, sexually or whatever. That was the weirdest thing that popped into my head because why would you be driving half a dozen kids out in the middle of the night?”.  Yes.  That is weird and frightening, yet the neighbor said nothing and the torturous abuse went on for years.  Why?

In addition to the Bystander Effect, a common after-thought in communities is “I thought something was wrong but I didn’t call.”  The erroneous thought process that “someone else will do it,” psychologically letting them off the hook.  Of course, there is also the fear factor.  People are afraid to say anything because they don’t want to get in legal trouble if they are wrong. Well, that is exactly how kids end up abused and dead. Yes, it’s scary to think about taking action and potentially disrupting that household if you’re wrong. But what if you’re right? You could save a child’s life. What if one person watching Khaseen being murdered called 911 instead of filming his death? Or even just yelled “I’m calling the cops?” At some point we have to take responsibility for our communities and recognize we have an ethical obligation to help a person in need. Imagine for a moment Khaseen was your son? Your cousin? Your brother? Would you feel comfortable relying on someone else to step in?

Right now, we are in the middle of a historic pandemic.  There is no end in sight.  People are isolated, children are not in school.  People who normally have eyes on our vulnerable youth, like nurses, teachers, coaches, can’t see them in person. That’s why the onus is on every single one of us. Every day. In MY neighborhood. In YOUR neighborhood. It is ALL of our responsibility to make sure our communities are safe places for children, not fertile ground for nauseating viral videos.  Pick up the phone, but do it with the right intention.  

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