Understanding the bystander effect and the impact on our society
I like to think in a situation of urgency I won’t just stand around and watch, but rather, get involved and try to help. I hope everyone has the same mentality, so that if, god forbid, I’m in trouble and out in public, someone will have the decency to help me.
Unfortunately, this is often not the case. According to a report by CBC News, a homeless man staggered into an oncoming train and lay bleeding on the edge of the station platform tracks for 16 minutes before help arrived. It occurred at Langelier metro station in Montreal. The article references the bystander effect as the reason why no one called for help sooner.
According to the article, the “bystander effect” refers to when a crowd of people don’t react or don’t get involved in a situation where someone’s life is in jeopardy—there is this notion that we think someone else will act instead. As a result, no one acts at all because everyone thinks someone else will.
A lot of people might be familiar with the famous murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964. She was a young woman who, on her way home in the early hours of the morning, was attacked by a man in an alley. As she was being stabbed repeatedly by her assailant, she screamed and cried for help.
The investigation reported that, out of the 38 neighbours who heard her screams and who basically bore witness to the situation, no one called the police. According to Psychology Today, their excuses were all the same—they figured someone else would do it.
Which brings me to my story. Last week, I was heading to my afternoon class at the Loyola campus and, just as I was about to get off the bus, I heard shouting from the back of the crowded bus. Although my earphones were blasting music, I was able to hear the sound of someone yelling for help.
Distinctly, one of the voices shouted, “Someone call 9-1-1.” This prompted me to remove my ear buds, run to the back of the bus. Ten years of lifeguard experience have given me the instinct to engage and the training to deal with an emergency situation.
As I was on the phone with a 9-1-1 operator, I looked around and saw at least a dozen people just standing around watching. The bus was absolutely full of people but they were all just standing around, trying to see what the commotion was about and get a peek at the action.
In an age when virtually everyone has a cell phone, I was astounded that no one closer to the situation chose to respond and call emergency services. I was about to step out of the bus, yet I managed to run to the back of the bus and act before anyone else did.
After speaking with emergency services, I stood in front of two women who were kneeled beside the young man lying on his back on the floor. They were the ones who had been yelling for help. Although the man’s eyes were open, they were unfocused and he wasn’t moving. One of the women, who announced that she was a student nurse, was taking his vitals. She told me he had been seizing and was now coming down from his seizures.
I was patched through to the paramedic on route to our location. He asked me a few questions about the young man’s condition, so I told him about the seizure. The ambulance driver asked me to follow the man’s breathing patterns. Every time I saw him take a breath in, I was to say “yes” so that the ambulance driver would know what condition he was in and whether he was breathing okay.
By this time, the bus had emptied, so myself, the student nurse, the man and the bus driver were the only ones left.
As we waited for the ambulance to arrive, I sat with the student nurse beside the young man to reassure him and calm him down as he regained full consciousness. At this point, the student nurse told me I could go. I asked a few times if she was sure and, after she reassured me it was fine, I left.
I wasn’t scared during the whole ordeal. I remember feeling very calm. After I left the scene, my heart was racing as I knew I was on some sort of adrenaline high.
I definitely felt frustrated at the very beginning, simply because I was the furthest from the situation, yet, I was the one who rushed back to help. Even though there were plenty of people closer who could have called 9-1-1, no one bothered. I was impressed with myself because I know I could have easily been another bystander who did nothing.
This brings me back to the bystander effect. We all seem to have this mentality of “someone else will do it.” We think, since there are plenty of other people around, someone else is bound to react first. But that won’t always be the case. Frankly, it’s scary to see how delayed of a reaction people have, or the blatant hesitation that results in a person doing nothing.
The young man is fine. I even saw him again the other day on the bus. However, this doesn’t excuse those who just stood around and watched the situation unfold. We all need to be more aware of what’s going on and be willing to help.
Getting engaged in a potentially urgent situation can be scary and it takes courage to do so. However, we’ve all got it in us and just think, wouldn’t you want someone to come to your aid if you needed it? The fact that there are incidents where more people stand around watching rather than helping is frightening.