Innocent bystanders?

A little over fifty years ago, in March of 1964, the New York Times broke a cover story entitled, “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.”  Young Kitty Genovese had been attacked and killed by a mentally ill assailant as she was returning home from work.  The crime itself, of course, was tragic.  But what grabbed the attention of the American public was the cruel apathy of the bystanders: allegedly, dozens of people witnessed the crime and did nothing.

As it turns out, the Times had bent the truth a bit.  Recent investigations argue that while it’s true that some looked away, others did in fact try to help: yelling at the attacker, calling for the police, even going to Genovese to comfort her as she died.

But the story struck a chord: what is it that makes people so reluctant to get involved?  A whole tradition of psychological research was born, documenting what has become known as the bystander effect.  Here’s a video that clearly and disturbingly demonstrates the phenomenon — the effect has been replicated again and again in different settings.  The video is introduced by psychologist Philip Zimbardo (best known for the so-called Stanford Prison Experiment), who begins by citing Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) as a counterexample to apathy.

To some extent, the decision to not get involved when someone else is in trouble is driven by diffusion of responsibility.  Put simply, if trouble arises and you seem to be the only who can do something about it, you’re more likely to try.  But if others are around, and they do nothing, then you’re much less likely to challenge the unspoken rule and take action.

The underlying dynamic, it seems, is our tendency to identify with groups.  When we’re by ourselves, there may be no group standard of behavior by which to gauge our actions.  But add a couple more people to the mix, and suddenly, unconsciously, their behavior becomes a reference point for ours.  The effect appears to be heightened by other signs of group membership: how the victim is dressed, for example, is a sign of social class, and influences the decision to intervene.

There is, I believe, a social psychological lesson here for the church.  We are called to be people who live out Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors, to be people whose very definition of “neighbor” breaks in-group and out-group distinctions (the part of the parable that I think Zimbardo misses).  But paradoxically, that means we need to be part of a group that shares that vision and demonstrates it in concrete acts of mercy.  We need a local group of believers with whom we can identify strongly enough to take that identification, that moral reference point, into other settings where the rules of the game may be different.

Zimbardo asks us to consider whether we would be the ones to help when confronted with situations such as those in the video.  Realistically speaking, there’s no way to be certain until you’re actually there.  But in the meantime, we can cultivate the kind of Christian community that encourages us all to embody the compassion of Jesus.

And then, well, let’s see what happens.

2 thoughts on “Innocent bystanders?

  1. Pastor/Dr. Chuck Swindoll tells the story (in a few of his sermons) of students at an unnamed seminary. They were assigned in groups to do a project on the Good Samaritan parable. One group decided to have one of its members lying down on the path most students took to the school as a viciously beaten victim. The other students hurried to class with their essays, passing the victim; not one of them stopped to help.

    1. Yes, sorry to say, this has been done over and over again with the same result. High school students have done the same project, with students laying in the hallway during the passing period. Hundreds of students walk around them, and sometimes even step over them, being too much in a hurry and not wanting to get involved.

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