The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘bystander effect’

The Bystander Effect at Penn State

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 12, 2011

From Time:

The grand jury investigation that resulted in 40 counts of child abuse against Penn State’s former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, has raised profoundly unsettling psychological and moral questions about the actions — or lack thereof — of others involved in the case.

Head football coach Joe Paterno was fired by the university on Wednesday for his failure to intervene upon learning about the alleged long-running abuse. But many more questions center on Mike McQueary, who is still employed by Penn State; he witnessed child rape firsthand in 2002, when he was a graduate assistant coach, but did not alert the police.

How is it that a powerfully built ex-quarterback could watch the rape of a 10-year-old boy and do nothing to stop it? Why did he neglect to report what he saw to legal authorities for nearly a decade, even knowing that the perpetrator spent much of his time with at-risk youth? And why did the team and the university fail to act at every possible step?

McQueary, who is now a wide receivers coach at Penn State, did tell his superior, Paterno, about the attack he witnessed eight years ago, but he did not call the police or get help for the boy at the time. (Now reportedly the focus of death threats, McQueary won’t be coaching Saturday’s game against Nebraska.) McQueary isn’t the only alleged witness to do nothing: a Penn State janitor witnessed a separate assault on a child two years earlier, and similarly failed to contact police.

The rest of us would like to believe that no matter how small or scared we were, if we saw a child being raped, we’d step in and stop it, or at the very least call 911 immediately. But social psychology research on “bystander” behavior suggests that many of us might actually turn away.

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. . . Mark Levine, a social psychologist at Lancaster University in the U.K., * * * says that group dynamics do influence our actions, but not exactly the way we think. His own research has shown that being with others doesn’t always — or even typically — reduce altruistic behavior. However, the type of group we’re in and the relationships we have with its members, and with outsiders, do tend to influence how likely or unlikely we may be to help.

When the actions of a group are public and visible, insiders who behave in an unacceptable way — doing things that “contravene the norms of the group,” Levine says — may actually be punished by the group more harshly than an outsider would be for the same behavior. “It’s seen as a threat to the reputation of the group,” says Levine.

In contrast, when the workings of a group are secretive and hidden — like those of a major college football team, for instance, or a political party or the Catholic priesthood — the tendency is toward protecting the group’s reputation by covering up. Levine suggests that greater transparency in organizations promotes better behavior in these situations.

“It’s the norms and the values of the group that are important,” Levine says, noting that this fact doesn’t reflect very well on Penn State. Indeed, the riot that broke out after the firing of revered coach Paterno — who appears to have covered up for his former colleague, Sandusky, or at least looked the other way, rather than reporting him to the police — suggests that group solidarity with the football team still takes priority over support for abused children at the school.

Another factor that may have prevented action by McQueary and others is denial. Social psychologist Stanley Cohen identified several forms of denial that may cause people to ignore atrocities. There’s the denial that commonly occurs in response to difficult situations like receiving a cancer diagnosis or becoming addicted to drugs: the simple repressing of information and refusal to admit that the problem exists or has occurred.

In McQueary’s case, however, there seems to have been another type of denial at play, which Cohen labeled “interpretative.” “You don’t deny that something happened, but try to transform the meaning of it,” says Levine, explaining that a witness might minimize the significance of a crime or try to see it as something other than it was.

McQueary may well have been psychologically unable to accept that a man like Sandusky, someone he admired, had actually committed the abhorrent crime he witnessed. Research suggests that when people are faced with situations that threaten their view of the world as relatively fair and decent, rather than revising their own perspective, they often create accounts that deny reality, blame the victim or otherwise rationalize the situation.

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A third factor that influences the likelihood that people will intervene in violence is whether they feel their actions will be supported by others in the community around them. Levine studied the case of James Bulger, a 2-year-old who was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered by two older boys in 1990 in Liverpool. Many witnesses saw the boys with the bleeding toddler, but since the boys claimed to be the victim’s brothers, no one confronted them.

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While it is not clear exactly how the norms or values of Penn State may have affected the lack of action by its leadership in response to such vile abuse, it is clear that something went very wrong. A pedophile should not have been allowed to operate with impunity, especially after having been caught in the act twice.

Understanding the psychology of these situations can help increase the chances that bystanders will step up when people need assistance, but it does not excuse the failures of those who do nothing.

More.

Posted in Education, Illusions, Morality, Social Psychology | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Bystanders in Child Abductions

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 2, 2010

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Sexual Harassment,” The Situation of Bystanders,” “The Positive Situation of Crowds,” “The Situation of Helping,” “The Situation of Hazing, Torture, Gender, and Tears,” Journalists as Social Psychologists & Social Psychologists as Entertainers,” and Milgram Replicated on French TV – ‘The Game of Death’.”

Posted in Morality, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

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.”

Posted in Classic Experiments, Morality, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, Uncategorized, Video | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

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.”

Posted in Education, Law, Morality, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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