Friday, December 7, 2012

The NYC subway death and the bystander effect

[I'm in the midst of the end-of-semester crunch, so I was thrilled yesterday to see Michael Britt writing on his Facebook page about the tragic death that occurred on the New York City subway tracks earlier this week. As many of you know, Michael is the former psychology professor who is the genius behind the amazing The Psych Files site that many of us frequently use. So I was delighted that he accepted my offer to do a guest post about this story and whether it is or isn't an example of the bystander effect in action. Take it away Michael!  --Steve]

A Clear Case of the Bystander Effect? 

You may have heard that recently a man was pushed onto the tracks of an oncoming subway train and that no one reached out a hand to help the man get back onto the platform. Not only that, but a photographer snapped a picture of the man as he desperately tried to get back onto the platform. [Here is a link to the photo, which should also appear below.]

Why didn’t anyone help? This real life story has many similarities to the infamous story of Kitty Genovese who was attacked and killed in NYC in the early ‘60s while many people heard her screams but did not help.

Your first reaction might be that of many others who read these stories; that people are callous – especially people who live in cities, or that the photographer was uncaring and more interested in getting a picture that would make him rich than he was in doing the right thing.

Bibb Latane and John Darley, psychologists who studied bystander intervention, might say that this is a clear example of diffusion of responsibility: all the onlookers are shocked, but they’re thinking that someone else – perhaps a police office – will jump in to help.

When we read about a story like this we often think we would not just stand by – we would help. But when things like this happen the chaos and confusion of the situation often make people behave quite differently than they might like.

There is also a connection here to the idea of the fundamental attribution error: our reaction to what the photographer did (or didn’t do) might be to think that he’s “immoral” or “selfish”. We’re attributing his actions to an internal cause – his personality. The photographer, however, attributes his behavior to an external cause – despite what the picture shows, he was actually too far away to help the man.

Here’s another connection to an important concept in psychology: blaming the victim. If you read the full story about the incident you would learn that the victim left home that morning drunk and that police found a bottle of vodka on his body. Learning this, you might say to yourself that maybe he was partly to blame for what happened to him. After all, he shouldn’t have been drunk.

Psychologists would say that we don’t like to think that we too could be victims of something bizarre and somewhat random like what happened here, so we are motivated to blame victims as a way of protecting ourselves from the anxiety involved with thinking that we might be victims ourselves.

It’s a disturbing story, but one worth discussing with students and helping them understand the many different psychological principles that could be applied here.

PS: Here's another wrinkle: the photographer who took the dramatic photo later said that he was not deliberately taking a picture of the man on the tracks anyway. He was flashing his camera in an attempt to alert the conductor that there was something wrong. The pictures that came out of this act were just an accident.

Also, many people on the platform were shouting at the conductor to stop while others ran to the ticket booth to tell that person to contact the conductor to tell him to call the conductor and tell him to stop.

So perhaps people did try to help after all – just not the way we think we would have done if we were there. But what would you really have done in this upsetting situation?

By the way, not everything you read or heard about the famous “Kitty Genovese” story is true. Listen to this episode from The Psych Files podcast: “Kitty Genovese – What Really Happened?” 

[Thanks, Michael!]
--posted by Steve


John Hallquist said...

Some in my AP Psych classes wondered if this was a possible example of reduced prosocial behavior due to chronic exposure to violent media or that being desensitized to scenes like this had some witnesses behaving as if they were watching on TV.

Charlie Blair-Broeker said...

Joe Nocera's column in the Dec 8 NY Times compares this incident to the 2007 incident where Wesley Autrey did act to save a person who had fallen from a subway platform. Also ties it to Kitty Genovese. See: