The phenomenon first received widespread attention in , when the New York bar manager Kitty Genovese was sexually assaulted and murdered outside her apartment building in the borough of Queens.
It also launched a whole new field of study. The most famous exercise took place in a room into which smoke would be piped. Research participants were taken inside, where they might be left alone; with two other participants; or with two researchers masquerading as participants oblivious to the incoming smoke. The majority of participants 75 per cent who were alone in the room reported the smoke; by contrast, only 10 per cent of those in a room with two seemingly unobservant researchers reported it.
Their findings played out with chilling consistency through the years. In , a college freshman at the University of New Hampshire was gang-raped by three fellow students. In , up to 20 people watched a year-old being gang-raped outside a high-school dance in Richmond, California. Nor is this a problem only in Western countries. While Wang Yue lay injured in the street, 18 people passed by without stopping to assist her. She was eventually hit by a second vehicle, which also did not stop.
Almost 10 minutes after the incident, a passing trash collector finally moved the little girl out of the street and called for help.
A week later, the little girl died in a hospital. One issue worth exploring was the long-standing idea, perpetuated by the Genovese story, that big cities breed apathy, even callousness. The theory turns out to be flawed — city size played a role, but not the most important one. In each city, Levine and his team have run a series of experiments in which bystanders have the opportunity to help or not help a stranger.
In one experiment, for example, researchers feigned a leg injury and dropped a large pile of magazines in view of a passing pedestrian, visibly struggling to bend over and pick them up. In another, researchers feigned blindness at a street crossing, held out their cane and awaited assistance. Still other experiments were simpler — researchers dropped pens or stamped-addressed envelopes and tracked whether a bystander tried to return the pen or mail the envelope.
Results challenge the long-standing assumption that big, anonymous cities are destined to be full of unhelpful people. Meanwhile, the most helpful city internationally, of the 23 he and colleagues studied for their paper for the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology , was Rio de Janeiro — population some 6.
The opposite of what I was taught growing up in New York, which was not to help. More individualist cultures, such as the US and much of Europe, value individual achievement and identity over group identity; members are expected to look out for themselves and challenging social norms is often admired. Collectivist societies such as China, on the other hand, tend to value conformity and loyalty to the family or group over individual achievements or desires.
Collectivist cultures also place a premium on conformity. So while individuals in collectivist cultures might be more likely to step in to help a member of their in-group, that helpfulness might not extend beyond their group, particularly if intervention violates a strong social norm such as loyalty or obedience to superiors. A paper in the journal Social Development compared behaviours in two different countries, individualistic Italy and collectivist Singapore.
While bullying was more common in Italy than in Singapore, Italians, especially girls, were also more likely to defend the victims and engage in active intervention. In other words, the rugged individualists were more likely to buck prevailing social norms and help someone in need. So how does all this help to explain the new bystanders — those who do nothing to stop online bullying or brutal college campus rapes?
On 11 August , a year-old girl was sexually assaulted in Steubenville, a small town in Ohio, by two local football players — over the course of many hours and at several different locations. Throughout the evening, one perpetrator sent text messages describing the crime, along with nude pictures of the victim to friends.
Onlookers at the scene took videos and shared them, too. All of which means that numerous partygoers and others were aware of the incident and failed to report it or assist the victim.
The events of that night baffled most of the US public, but when viewed in a different framework, the inaction of recent bystanders to sexual assault and bullying makes sense. But in some collectivist cultures, social norms may pressure members to look the other way, especially when it comes to sexual assault. The Steubenville tragedy demonstrates how flawed that assumption is. And the advent of social media has only magnified the bystander effect, creating more bystanders and offering those same bystanders a protective cloak of invisibility, sometimes anonymity.
On the night of the Steubenville assault, someone posted a photo on Instagram of the victim, unconscious, being carried by her wrists and ankles by the perpetrators. Yet another witness reportedly took a cell phone-video of the unconscious girl being sexually assaulted, although he claimed to have deleted it the next day.
The Steubenville perpetrators, for example, relied heavily on text messages in their effort to cover up the assault. Trent Mays, one of the perpetrators, sent a message to one friend, saying: T his type of cyberbullying, in which bullying either occurs exclusively online or accompanies in-person attacks, has also increased and has, in a few instances, resulted in tragic suicides. On 14 January , after a particularly difficult day of bullying, Prince went home and hanged herself.
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