Does not helping others make you a bad person?

As a U of T Psychology minor, I’ve long thought Psychology 101 should be a mandatory course, not just in university, but beginning in high school. The recent death of Judy Tak Fong Lam Chiu, a 66-year-old dementia patient who froze to death after wandering outside at 2 a.m., only reaffirms my belief.

The public seems to think neighbors who ignored Ms. Chiu’s cries for help are very bad people. In an effort to explain why no one called the police, a reader speculated in the Globe and Mail website that perhaps Ms. Chiu had screamed obscenities, which might have scared potential rescuers away. Most of the other commenters were harsher.

“Those who heard her cries and screams and elected to ignore them must be charged,” wrote Sorethroat.

“I’d like to think that in Canada we are still a caring society,” wrote JohnnyCoast, not sounding hopeful.

This is an understandable reaction. Unable to comprehend why someone would ignore a fellow human being’s cries for help, most us readily assume that the people who just stood by are bad people.

But what if that isn’t the case? What if we too would have just stood by?

Nonsense, you say. I’m a good person. I would’ve done something.

The Bystander Effect

This is where a knowledge of Psychology comes in handy. The reason why people sometimes ignore victims’ pleas is a very simple one. It’s known as the bystander effect, and it’s been amply documented. Wikipedia offers a fairly good definition.

I will summarize it as follows: the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help.

Why? There a number of reasons—none of them sinister or even depressing.

One, and the most important in my opinion, is that everybody assumes somebody else will act, therefore feeling less responsible. Psychologists refer to this as “diffusion of responsibility.”

A second reason why bystanders may not do anything is related to the principle of social influence, whereby everyone monitors the reactions of other bystanders for cues on how to act. Since they are not doing anything, neither will we.

There are even more reasons, including fear of losing face or of offering unwanted assistance. And especially in North America, as the immigrant in me cannot resist pointing out, the risk of legal liability cannot be forgotten.

These explanations my seem farfetched or unlikely, but the fact remains that the bystander effect has been demonstrated in lab conditions in many occasions. When the subject of the experiment is alone and sees someone (an accomplice, or in Psychology-speak, a confederate of the experimenter) in what the subject perceives to be a dangerous situation, they usually act appropriately. These dangerous situations have ranged from epileptic seizures (fake, of course) to a person falling.

But when the subject is surrounded by other people, it often takes them a long time to act, if they do act at all. In fact, “these experiments virtually always find that the presence of others inhibits helping, often by a large margin.”

The point here is not to blame or exonerate anyone, but to make us aware of one simple fact: if something bad happens to someone in from of our eyes, we should know that no one but us is likely to come to the rescue. This isn’t because others are bad people. It’s because they are not aware of the bystander effect.

This knowledge allowed me once to come to the aid of an old lady who’d slipped and fallen backwards in a grocery store whose tile floor was covered by sleet. The old lady lay there, moaning, and not one person came to her aid. I did, though. I knelt beside her, comforted her, asked where it hurt, called the ambulance from my cell phone, held her hand until the paramedics arrived, and even phoned her son so he would come with her to the hospital.

I know I’m not necessarily a better person than the other patrons. I know they too would’ve acted, had they been conscious of the bystander effect.

Now you are, too.

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3 Comments on “Does not helping others make you a bad person?

  1. I agree that everyone should take at least intro Psych

  2. Very good article Alain! Unfortunately I would have been victim of the bystander effect myself in this situation, not to mention it was in the middle of night with temperatures close to -20. Not a good combination to convince residents to leave the house to see what’s going on..

  3. Excellent point. I hope this knowledge will help me step up if I’m ever witness to someone in need.