The Situationist

The Situation of Bystanders

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 3, 2010

ABC News‘s “What Would You Do?” series recently conducted a series of experiments testing the bystander effect.

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Most readers of The Situationist have likely seen the grainy video of Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax‘s final moments on a street in Jamaica, Queens.  He was stabbed while saving a woman from a knife-wielding attacker and fell to the sidewalk, where he lay dying in a pool of his own blood for more than an hour while dozens of pedestrians passed by without calling for help.

A.G. Sulzberger and Mick Meenan wrote an excellent piece, titled “Questions Surround a Delay in Help for a Dying Man” last week in The New York Times.  The article quotes Situationist Contributor John Darley whose now classic research on the bystander effects which, unfortunately, remains as relevant today as ever.  Here are some excerpts.

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It will probably never be clear how many people realized that Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax was dying.

One man bent down to the sidewalk to shake the man, lifting him to reveal a pool of blood before walking away. Two men appeared to have a conversation about the situation, one pausing to take a photo of the body before departing. But the rest merely turned their heads toward the body, revealing some curiosity as they hurried along.

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On Sunday, a week after the killing, people in the area seemed mostly unshaken by its circumstances. Many were unaware that someone had died on 144th Street in Jamaica, near 88th Road, in a hardscrabble neighborhood with large populations of Central American immigrants and of homeless men.

But to the question of obligation — whether those who encountered the body should have stopped and helped the man — the answers came quickly.

Perhaps the passers-by thought he was just drunk. Perhaps they were illegal immigrants themselves, too nervous to contact the authorities. Or perhaps they had just learned a lesson that Mr. Tale-Yax so clearly had not: better to keep to oneself than to risk the trouble that comes from extending a helping hand.

“It’s bad,” said Alexis Perez, 29, the superintendent of two buildings on the block where the stabbing occurred. “But I live here, so I know what it’s like. There are a lot of alcoholics who drink and then they fall down and they’re laying on the ground. People say to themselves, ‘I don’t know them so I won’t get involved.’ ”

At the Iglesia Cristo Peniel, a small brick assembly hall bursting with Spanish hymns, Uber Bautista, 37, a heavy-machinery operator who identified himself as a church elder, said that he believed the inaction might have stemmed from illegal immigrants’ trying to escape detection.

“So they’re going to be very afraid to call the authorities if they see something,” he said. “It’s not that people don’t care.”

Juan Cortez, himself the victim of several assaults, offered another theory as he collected cans from the trash nearby. “People mind their own business,” he said.

Regardless of the explanation, the death has become another unfortunate case study in bystander behavior in emergencies, a psychological field that developed after the notorious 1964 killing of Kitty Genovese. She was stabbed to death at an apartment building in Kew Gardens, Queens, where a large number of neighbors heard her screams but did not call the police.

The death of Mr. Tale-Yax is all the more dramatic because police say that he was stabbed as a result of his apparently trying to help a stranger.

“I’m afraid what we’ve got here is a situation of people failing to help, and the failure appears to be a moral failure,” said John Darley, a professor of psychology at Princeton University who has written about bystander response to emergencies. “He did what you’re supposed to do, and we let the person, who did what he was supposed to do, die.”

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To read the article in its entirety, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Busker or Virtuoso? Depends on the Situation,” “Thinking the Situation into Legal Theory: The Promise of Experimental Parable,” “The Situational Effect of Groups,” “The Situation of Helping,” and “The Situation of Gang Rape.”

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One Response to “The Situation of Bystanders”

  1. jeff said

    I would like to know what happened to Linda Hamilton after this aired. Since everyone is singing her praises, are they doing anything to help this woman who is occasionally homeless?

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