By Lynn Chia
‘Eye power’, as quintessentially Singaporean as it sounds, is really not just a Singaporean thing.
A local social experiment produced in 2014 on the passive bystander effect was one of the first local experiments that shed light on the importance of the diffusion of responsibility.
In the social experiment, when the injured actor and the blind actor collided in an accident, many people exercised their ‘eye power’ by standing by without helping despite having witnessed the incident.
See also: this Reddit thread
Some people attribute this to the mind-your-own-business (MYOB) narrative that is seemingly perpetuated in our society. However, there is a scientific basis for this behaviour.
Why do we fail to act?
This wasn’t an evil crowd that was glad someone had collapsed. It was a large crowd of strangers, many of whom had undoubtedly seen him collapse. They were all concerned, I’m sure, and at least some among them hadn’t entirely surrendered to the shock of seeing someone fall unconscious.
Take another example, imagine that you are in Orchard Road. You notice a man fall to the ground and start convulsing as if having a seizure. Many might turn and look at the man, but no one moves to help or call for medical assistance.
This is because there are so many people present, no one person feels pressured to respond. Each person might think, “Oh, someone else has probably already called for help” or “No one else is doing anything, so it must not be that serious.”
The likely explanation relates to a phenomenon called diffusion of responsibility. Simply put, it is a psychological phenomenon in which people are less likely to act when in the presence of a large group of people.
Malcolm Gladwell famously introduced this concept as an explanation for why not one of Kitty Genovese’s neighbours helped or intervened despite having presumably hearing her screams while she was being murdered.
The report that 38 people literally watched her die through their windows while doing nothing may have been a significant distortion of what happened, but at the very least, one or two of her neighbours heard her screams, and yet managed to explain them away as something less ominous than they were is likely not.
This sort of rationalization is a story we tell ourselves in order to relieve ourselves of the responsibility to act, and it underlies the notion of the diffusion of responsibility. Knowing that others heard the same scream, or received the same email request, or came upon a man down powerfully tempts us to assume someone else has taken responsibility for doing what needs to be done.
Many reasons for us falling prey to this assumption exist. We’re all busy with our own lives and don’t want to get involved. We may not believe we’re the best person to assume responsibility. We may not care about the issue involved. We may be lazy. After all, no four words in the English language are ever easier to say than: it’s not my problem.
Everything is our problem
So what should you do?
One one hand, you can choose to live your life that way – dividing obstacles that come your way into yours and theirs, and ignoring the principle of dependent origination, which states that we are all co-dependent and whether we realize it or not all rise and fall as such.
We sometimes think that when help isn’t requested automatically means that the problem isn’t yours to solve . However, to not care about whether it’s solved and turn your back on someone else’s plight is something which, the more you practice, the easier it becomes to tell yourself someone else will take care of the things that you can, and should be taking care of instead.
On the other hand, you can live with the consistent assumption that you’re here to help others in whatever way you can, stepping up constantly to whatever plate life thrusts before you without being asked. All that it takes is practice.
People who think this way don’t ask, “Who will do it?” They just assume if a problem finds them it’s theirs to help solve.
But wait, you might ask, if science suggests that it’s biological, does it then mean that we should continue to ‘mind our own business?’
No. On the contrary, basic intuition doesn’t necessarily connote the rightness of the passivity. With this increased self-awareness, we can be more conscientious about subverting these personal barriers.
Research has found that we are less likely to help and intervene in a situation when:
- Unfamiliarity with the victim — If bystanders do not know the victim, they’re less likely to help and more likely to expect someone else in the crowd to help.
- Uncertainty — If onlookers are unsure of the situation or are unclear about who is in trouble, or unsure if the person really needs assistance, then they are far less likely to act.
But people are more likely to help if they feel some sort of connection or personal knowledge of the person in trouble. If a victim makes eye contact and asks a specific individual for help, that person will feel more compelled to act.
And sometimes, people don’t step in to help because they feel unqualified. A person who has received specific training in first aid and CPR will probably feel more capable of helping.
However, we can always take baby steps toward countering this intuitive biology of passivity; step by step, countering the detriment of the passive bystander effect. For example, you can try to put yourself in a victim’s shoes, or take CPR and first aid classes. Also, be unafraid to step forward.
Finally, when in doubt, always ask.
This article was written by one of the founders of The Standby Collective, a campaign aimed at fostering a collective community of bystanders to intervene effectively against sexual harassment.
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