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Bystander Apathy – a Problem of Cities

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As you wait to cross the street, a blind man is standing in front of you. Without warning, he begins to cross the street even though the light has not changed in his favor. He seems to be in no danger until you see a car about a half mile away speeding towards him. Totally unaware of the situation, the man continues walking across the street. As you and many others watch in horror he is struck by the car. Although every single one of you had plenty of time to rescue him, you just watched, hoping that someone else would do it.

After all, you don’t know him so it’s really none of your business. This is what is referred to as “bystander apathy”. People close enough to see, hear and possibly touch one another are socially distant and totally indifferent to the fact that another human being may be dying, in immediate danger, or asking for help.

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This extremely sad urban problem is just that- a problem of cities. The likelihood of this occurring increases with the number of people present and it is probable that there will be many people to witness an event when it happens in high density cities. Urban sociologists, social psychologists, and criminologists have argued for years that the size of cities is directly related to the amount of “social pathology” they contain. The legal consequences are not severe. Unless an individual is a certified medical doctor, they have no obligation in Alberta to help anyone in need. So generally, they don’t. The personal consequences may be more severe. Feelings of guilt and regret may follow an event, especially if it ends fatally or if the individual feels that they could have done something significant. Because of this, people attempt to convince themselves and others that they were justified in their inaction because “it wasn’t their place”, “I didn’t want to do it alone”, or “I didn’t want to get involved.” Excuses like this often stem from fears of being seen as abnormal, possible physical harm, public embarrassment, possible involvement in police procedures, lost work days and jobs, and other dangers. Urban people are very concerned with the way they appear to others. Anything that may separate them from the “in-group” of society is usually seen as too risky to take part in. And strangely enough, helping people in need is seen as one of these risks. A study was done on seminarian students to see how likely they were to stop for a young student in distress. As reviewed by Brenner and Levin, out of the total 40 that passed the distressed student, only 16 stopped to help. Before allowing the students to come upon the confederate in need, the experimenters presented students with either writings about job applications, or the Good Samaritan Parable. This proved to have no effect on the likelihood of the student offering to help. I find this somewhat perplexing; one would think that especially after being shown text about helping someone in need as being “the right thing to do” that they would stop because of the guilt that may plague them. But the study showed that the main factor determining the choice to stop was whether or not they were in a hurry. I personally doubt that there would be any repercussions for being late if the reason was helping a fellow seminarian in need. But this study proves that people think otherwise. It has also been proposed that territoriality and social distance may be good predictors of willingness to prevent criminal behaviours. As presented by Gillis and Hagan, the disorganization theorists (Simmel et al.) claim that the unwavering activity of urban areas results in psychological withdrawal from others as a way to avoid stimulation overload. People in cities are no more likely to help neighbors than complete strangers, but their “social accountability” holds them responsible for friends and family. According to Gillis and Hagan, people are more willing to intervene when the violation is against a person than when it is against property. This is most probable because people perceive the property damage as less serious than attacking the person. But for both the property and personal attacks, people indicated that likelihood of intervention was related to proximity to home. Willingness to intercede is more likely when the crime was occurring near a persons’ home. This is known as “space-associated intolerance” and supports Gillis and Hagan’s hypothesis that territoriality plays an important part in intervention. Possibly the reason that the Kitty Genovese homicide was seen as so horrific is because not only did it violate the law, but the norms concerning territoriality as well. Because Gillis and Hagan’s data come from questionnaires, the subjects may respond the way that they believe that they should act, rather than the way that they would act. I believe that without a similar incident actually occurring to someone, that it would be almost impossible to say what you would do. Testers are requesting emotions that you most likely have never experienced before. Darley and Latane argue that persons witnessing emergency situations, especially frightening ones, experience conflict. Logical or irrational fears may get in the way of obvious humanitarian norms about helping the victim. In certain circumstances, any norms favoring intervention may be weakened, leading bystanders to choose the easiest resolution to the conflict; by looking the other way. One such circumstance may be the presence of other onlookers. The responsibility of helping the victim may be diffused among the observers, which limits the potential blame that can be placed on any one individual. As well, the thoughts of the possibilities of someone already doing something about it lessens the individuals feeling of responsibility. If the case is that there is only one person present at the scene of the attack, any possible help must come from that person. Although there is the option to ignore the need, pressure to intervene mounts on them. When a person perceives themselves as the only person who know of the victims’ condition they are much more likely to respond, and to do so quickly than if in a group (more than one other bystander). Also stated by Darley and Latane is that the victim is equally as likely to get help from two bystanders as one. Responding time is also critical to the likelihood of action. Failure to respond to a situation after approximately 3 minutes greatly decreases the likelihood of any type of intervention, including reporting the incident or asking for help. Although we all may wish to think that a person’s moral behaviour is separate from thoughts about rewards and punishments, evidence proves otherwise. People’s fears of being punished for not intervening are greatly lessened when within a group because the blame cannot be placed directly on them. Variations in sex and medical competence of other bystanders has no important affect on response. Darley and Latane’s study contradicts the bias that males tend to assume more responsibility and take more initiative than females in giving help to dependent others. Females are shown to respond just as quickly as male subjects. Darley and Latane state that although subjects may have failed to intervene or report the emergency, that there were few signs of apathy and indifference thought to distinguish “unresponsive bystanders”. When asked about the incident afterwards, subjects often responded with concern as to whether or not the victim was “all right.” Many of the seemingly apathetic subjects showed physical signs of nervousness, possibly more than the subjects who did respond. Darley and Latane argue that the unresponsive subjects simply did not respond because they were still in a state of decision making. They claim that these people are not “dehumanized by urbanization” or “depersonalized by living in the cold society.” I personally believe that the explanation for the increased physical nervousness is that the unresponsive subjects were fearful of the consequences for something that they knew was not morally right. Subjects that did respond did not show that extent of nervousness because they knew that they did what they should. I think that they gave the experimenters the answers they thought were “correct” because they were ashamed to report socially undesirable rationalizations, like “I didn’t want to get involved.” I personally have no doubt that in a situation that demands immediate action, that a person does not take 3 minutes to respond. If individuals really cared about others, they would not think twice about intervening to better someone else. I am presenting myself as a case study for “bystander apathy.” I personally am appalled by the thought of being able to look the other way when there is someone in need. I cannot possibly understand how someone can attempt to justify the fact that they did not intervene to help someone in distress when they know that they could have. I have been in a few situations where I have been a bystander of misfortune and am usually one of the few, if not the only, to intervene. When I was in my first year of university, I went to a private Christian university in British Columbia. Perhaps this had an impact on the way that I think, and how leaving a person in need to fend for themselves is never a consideration. I traveled home quite often, about once a month. I was late for my flight home for Christmas break. As I was checking in, I heard a loud thud and a woman began to yell for a doctor. I turned to see an elderly man lying on his back, obviously unconscious. Without thinking twice about it, (and not being a doctor of any sorts), I ran through people who were staring at the poor man and began to help him. I used the emergency training that I had, and checked for a pulse and checked his eyes and some other things that I simply cannot remember. I cradled his head in my hand and spoke to him in hopes of getting a response, after his vital signs showed me that he seemed to have fainted. After a few minutes, he came to, so I sat him up and attempted to comfort him as best I could. He told me that his wife was missing and that there was no record of her getting on a connecting flight. After assuring him that everything was going to be Ok, and deciding that he was well enough to fare on his own, I raced to catch my plane. All the while I was surrounded by people that did not even offer to help. The fact that I was late to catch my plane or that it was possible that I would have to wait longer to see my family and boyfriend did not even occur to me. This is why it is unimaginable to me to not help someone in need. A strange thing happens when I refuse to be an apathetic bystander. I get ridiculed and told that I am too hasty with my decisions. When I stopped to help a man who’s car had broken down in -40 degree weather and drove him to safety, my mother told me that it was not a smart decision. When I am forced to think of all the things that could have happened to me, sure, I think that I may suffer from a bit of naivete. But when I ponder what could have happened to the person if I would not have helped out, I do not think that I made a mistake. Something that I think is equally as unfortunate as the problem of bystander apathy is the general lack of ideas proposed to solve it. In California, and now in Alberta, there is a law that prohibits any medical doctor from leaving an injured person, no matter who they are. A good example of this is a soccer game that I attended this summer. The guys’ team of the league that I am in was playing a Spanish team. To make a long story short, things got very out of hand and the Spanish team ended up attacking and beating up our team. A mother of a Spanish player was trampled in the rush towards our side of the field. The doctor on our team ran immediately to help her, while behind him some Spanish players had decided to gang up on one of our players, which eventually left him unconscious. The doctor did not leave the woman’s side until he was sure that she was all right. I believe that this smoothed things out a little between the two teams; one reason that I am all for this law. I think that if cities increased their sense of community and responsibility for each other, that people would be more inclined to intervene in adverse situations. People are more likely to help someone that they feel a bond to. The media could also play a big part in helping prevent bystander apathy. There are many anti-smoking and anti-violence campaigns that create posters and commercials for their cause. The media has a significant impact on urban life, and I believe that this could make a big difference. Many years ago, a young woman by the name of Catherine (Kitty) Genovese was stabbed to death in the middle of a street in a residential area in New York City. This case received little attention until several weeks later when it was revealed that at least 38 people had witnessed the event, but not one chose to act. For more than half an hour, Kitty cried out for help to no avail. All 38 people chose instead to watch from the safety of their own apartments, not one lifted the telephone to call the police; something that could have been anonymous and did not require any direct intervention. Since that day, many have decided to focus on the anomie and social distance that seems to characterize cities and other urban areas. Physical proximity is now is totally unrelated to social closeness. Just because you are near enough to collide with someone doesn’t mean that you are going to touch them; touch them with a kind word, a smile, or saving them from harm. Despite the people “in blue” and those of us naive enough to lend a hand, the city tells of a sad story. A story that speaks of people who pretend that they don’t care about one another; it’s just too much hassle in their busy lives to reach out to another human being.

Cite this Bystander Apathy – a Problem of Cities

Bystander Apathy – a Problem of Cities. (2019, Jan 01). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/bystander-apathy-a-problem-of-cities/

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