When is it ok to do nothing?

In the latter years of the 20th century, the world of social psychology was rocked by the murder of Kitty Genovise.

Hers was an unremarkable killing in that it happened in a large American city.

The shocking thing was that, although a large number heard her screams in the area behind their apartments, nobody did anything.

Of course, such an incident would be terrifying to challenge – but these people did nothing – nobody lifted a phone to call the police.

Why? What on earth would stop one human coming to the aid of another when they could hear such obvious distress?

Apparently, they all believed that someone else would do something.
This encouraged psychologists into a raft of experiments. One of which was the broken leg getting onto a bus scenario.

Psychologists are a devious bunch- so no social scientists were harmed in the making of….

2 psychologists set up a situation where they were at the front of a queue to get on a bus. Psychologist (1) fell over clutching his leg reporting that he feared he had broken it as he went to get on the bus.

Psychologist (2) did one of 2 things. In half of the set pieces he stopped and pretended to help his pretend friend with his pretend broken leg.

In the other half of the set ups he ignored his writhing friend, stepping over him to get on the bus.

The behaviour of the people in the queue was dependent on the helping/ non-helping psychologist. Effectively they copied his behaviour. If he helped, they did – if he stepped over, so did they.

What was originally called “bystander apathy” in the Kitty Genovise case, was described in the following way – if individuals are presented with a socially ambiguous situation, they will take their cue as to what they should do from others. If there is no cue, then they’ll do nothing.

Yikes! Surely not! This can’t be true !

Inverbervie Pete told me about a situation he found himself in.

He was in a shop when his attention was drawn to a distressed infant and an angry parent. In front of a large audience the child’s carer pushed and pulled him in a violent manner – ultimately thrusting him into a pushchair.

Pete was moved by this scene and challenged the mother regarding her aggression towards the chid.

His concern was that if she could be this aggressive in the view of others, what might be going on behind closed doors?

Instead of support from his fellow shoppers, he was met with shaking heads and tuts of derision.

We can only guess what was going on in their minds. Perhaps they felt the woman needed support rather than chastisement? Perhaps they thought the woman’s behaviour was ok? I suspect that they felt that this situation had nothing to do with them. It was someone else’s problem – doctors – teachers – social workers – the police?

These same people perhaps read newspapers that tell tales of child abuse, shaking their heads derisively, perhaps thinking “Someone should have done something.”

Today, why not put on a different head?

Look at the world through a social workers eyes, a doctors eyes or even an abused child’s eyes.

There are loads of shoes to walk in,

we’re just scratching the surface.

Walk a mile chaps.

Chris

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