The Situationist

The Situation of Gang Rape

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 2, 2009

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In the wake of the horrific story about a 15-year-old girl gang-raped in a schoolyard during a homecoming dance.  The girl was brutalized for more than two hours and, if that wasn’t disturbing enough, there are reports of as many as twenty people stood by and watched, without even calling authorities.  The story raises the question about how so many could do so little to help.  Were they all monsters or is there some other explanation?

On that topic, two Situationist Contributors have been interviewed to offer a situationist perspective.  We’ve excerpted parts of both interviews below.

From ABC News, here are excerpts from an article, titled “How Could People Watch Alleged Gang Rape ‘Like An Exhibit’?,” by Radha Chitale, interviewing Situationist Contributor John Darley.

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Psychology experts say the incident, if it occurred as described, may have been the result of escalating wildness facilitated by an isolated, heavily male environment.

“If one of the boys or men grabbed her and pulled her toward him … and somebody else did something else so it became more and more sexual in nature … we now have a [group of boys] who are pretty wild,” said John Darley, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University. “Each act licensed what had gone before, and it also made more likely what came next.”

Anyone who had reservations about the unfolding events “was surrounded by people who were apparently tolerating what was going on and maybe even encouraging it,” Darley said.

In fact, several of the onlookers cheered and made comments as the student was assaulted.

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Meg Bossong, coordinator of Community Education and Outreach at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, said the case suggested elements of the bystander effect, in which people are less likely to respond to an emergency when there are others around.

“That idea [is] that the more people there are around, the fewer people will get involved because there’s a diffusion of responsibility,” she said. “Not stepping in sends the message that it’s not such a big deal. … This is something that we hear a lot about around crime and also around sexual assault.”

The element of sexual violence in the alleged attack at Richmond High School may have contributed to observers’ apparent inaction.

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But Darley said the apparent escalating brutality of the alleged attack may have had less to do with its sexual nature and more to do with the isolated location.

Marin Trujillo, a spokesperson for West Contra Costra Unified School District, said the attack occurred in a locked area not easily accessible from the enclosed gym where the homecoming dance was held and where security, which consisted of four police officers and numerous staff chaperones, were concentrated.

In fact, Darley said the seeds of behavior that could become unacceptable are evident when, for example, men catcall or whistle at people on the street, where social barriers prevent escalation. Military attacks on villages are another example where events can escalate beyond what is expected.

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You can read the entire article here.

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Situationist Contributor Mahzarin Banaji was interviewed by Neal Conan on NPR’s Talk of the Nation about the same story.  Here are some excerpts from that interview.

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CONAN: And when we hear about a case like this and we’re talking about the bystanders, those who watched and did nothing and walked away, those who stayed and, at least as far as we know from that report, jeered or cheered on what was going on, we think of those people and think they must be terrible people.

Prof. BANAJI: That’s right. That’s the first thought that comes to our mind. What else are we to think when we hear that a horrific event like this was simply allowed to continue to happen while people just stood there? So biologists and psychologists have studied for a long, long time the incredible capacity of human beings to help, to be altruistic. And therefore, these kinds of events pose a real dilemma. How do they happen and why do they happen, given that we know that we have a capacity to help?

Evolutionary psychologists might tell us that sometimes we’re unable to help when the group that we’re thinking about helping is far away because we didn’t evolve to think about helping people who lived many, many miles away. But again, the bystander problems shows us that this is happening in the here and now.

Sometimes it’s easy to think about helping an individual person, even though a group tragedy may not affect us. And again, the bystander problem poses a dilemma because this is about an individual human being and that person’s suffering. And so, of course, there are now, we know, many, many experiments done on something called the bystander non-intervention effect, and it was done in the late ’60s, following the murder of Kitty Genovese. And exactly as you say, Neal, the initial response from psychiatrists and psychologists was: Who were these horrible people who stood around watching the murder of this woman and didn’t call the police? And that led to a stunning set of experiments.

And the reason I say that the experiments here are so important is that because in any given case, we don’t know exactly what the pressures on the situation were, and we don’t know exactly what those folks experienced. And that’s why when we bring complex phenomena like this into the laboratory and we put them to the test there, we can say with far greater precision what it is that’s going on. And the results of two psychologists by the name of Latane and Darley stand out here because they reenacted certain situations in the laboratory, a person having a seizure, a bunch of smoke just flowing into a room, and all they varied was the number of people present.

And the data show over and over again that if there was one person in the room, the likelihood of helping is around 75 percent. But as the number goes to two and three and four and five and six, the number of people who jump up to help drops to 10 percent, right?

So there’s something about the size of the group that, although it should lead us to be more likely to help, actually produces the counterintuitive reverse effect.

CONAN: That’s fascinating. So, in effect, there’s something biological going on here.

Prof. BANAJI: Well, we can – you know, we would want to at least say that it is something cognitive going on because here’s what we think needs to happen in an emergency situation like this. First of all, you have to notice that there is an emergency.

CONAN: Sure.

Prof. BANAJI: And the remarkable result from these original studies is that if you are with other people sitting there, you are less likely to even notice the smoke. You are less likely to even recognize that the child’s cry for help is a real cry for help, and so on. So there’s something that changes in our minds to even identify what it is that’s going on. And, of course, once we identify what it is that’s going on, then we need to figure out some way to take action, and that’s where psychologists believe something called diffusion of responsibility occurs, that the number of people, as that – yes.

CONAN: It has to – if there’s a large number of people, it’s not an individual’s responsibility anymore. It’s, hey, if Charlie over there doesn’t do it, why should I do it?

Prof. BANAJI: That’s correct. Try dropping a penny in an elevator with one other person present versus six others present, and you’ll find the number of people helping to pick it up just drop precipitously.

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Prof. BANAJI: You know, I would say that from the perspective of the research, the type of crime proves to be less important. What is far more important is the setup of the situation, that is to say in this case, the sheer number of other people who were watching. And I just want to go back to the previous caller and something that Lieutenant Gagan said.

You know, he said these suspects are monsters. I don’t understand how this many people, capable of such atrocious behavior, could be in one place at one time. And I think the answer is actually embedded in his – in what he says, that is how could so many monsters gather in one place at one time? And the right answer from our perspective would be: These are not monsters. These are us. This is all of us. This has nothing to do with the fact that it happened in a particular city, although the size of the city does matter.

So smaller towns are more likely to be places where we will be helped, not because people in smaller towns are better people but because smaller towns have fewer people.

CONAN: Are smaller by definition, yeah.

Prof. BANAJI: Yeah. And that’s what I think is the most important point in the research, that this is not about a few monsters. This is about everybody. It says something very difficult to us. It says that perhaps had we had been standing there, we ourselves, if we were not better educated about this particular effect and what it does to us, we may fall prey to it ourselves.

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CONAN: . . . . Bullying, is that something that would fall into this category of bystanders?

Prof. BANAJI: Yes, absolutely I would say that it does. And that’s why even though we speak about it on radio and hear the media report it when it is an event of the kind in Richmond, California, I think that what your caller is bringing up tells us that these acts of intervention are acts that we are called upon every single day to make.

I have been thinking of this in the context of institutional corruption, and again, to me, the issue of why we don’t pick up the phone and report on something when we know that we’re going to be protected, when it’s not even throwing ourselves into the river to have to save somebody, why is it that we don’t? And I think understanding what’s at the heart of that inability, both at the level of the moral sort of pressure that we feel, but also much more at the level of the situations and the institutional mechanisms that surround us, that keep us from being able to do that.

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Prof. BANAJI: . . . .  I would say that if there’s anything for us to do here, it is to learn as individuals, to practice small acts of intervention, to just sort of begin to think about events around us as our responsibility. Those are the sorts of things that we hope that our educational systems will impart to people and that our society will sort of hold people, in some ways, responsible and for intervening and for not intervening. And it’s sort of – it’s really a disturbing – in some sense – to hear . . . that the law, in trying to improve the situation, may be setting it up in such a way that we are hurting act of intervention.

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You can read or listen to the entire interview here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Construing ‘Acquaintance Rape’,” The Situation of Blaming Rihanna,” “What Counts as Rape?,” “Unrecognized Injustice — The Situation of Rape,” The Situation of Helping,” “The Situational Effect of Groups,” ‘Us’ and ‘Them,’” “History of Groupthink,” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I,” and “March Madness.”

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