Turning inner space into outer space

October 12, 2011

Why didn't they help? Think back to Kitty Genovese

An elderly man is in Thompson River near the Henry Grube Education Centre, obviously in distress. A young couple, inexplicably, does nothing to help. Two older women walking a dog happen on the scene and immediately offer aid.

Why the difference?

This is a question that has been around since at least 1964 in the famous Kitty Genovese case. Thirty-eight people in Queens, New York, heard her screams as she was murdered, and some even witnessed the event — yet no one intervened.

Kitty GenoveseThe incident received widespread attention, and psychologists John Darley, and Bibb Latané were just as intrigued as everyone else. So they did a study. And the results show that any one of us could have played the part of bystander at Thompson River.

One of the things they discovered was that responsibility becomes diffused. The more people there are, the more likely we are to assume that someone else will take the initiative. If we realize that we alone are able to help, then the odds of us actually helping go way up.

They also found that bystanders can be misled. If other people around them act as if there is no urgency, then they will convince themselves that everything if fine. This can happen even when danger signs are obvious.

Darley and Latané made several other interesting discoveries about human nature, but here is the one that may have played an important role in the Thompson River incident: we are more likely to help people we can identify with. Studies found this to be the case with racial or ethnic groups, but here in Kamloops it may have been a instance of young people not being able to identify with the distress of an elderly person. A lack of connection may have left them confused about how to react.

As shocking as it may be to hear of the inaction of others, Darley and Latané demonstrated clearly that it’s all too easy for even the most altruistic among us to turn into bystanders.

You can read more about their findings at the Greater Good website.