personal, psychology

The Bad Samaritan

The TV sitcom Seinfeld (in)famously ended with the foursome getting arrested for violating a Good Samaritan law. They saw something good to do and ignored it, which was typical for their characters. They only thought of themselves. Am I any different? Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer are grotesques—outsized caricatures of neurosis and narcissism. I don’t like to think of myself in the same company. I laugh at the show because it’s not me; it’s a parody of real human interaction. Here’s a story that makes me think I might not be so different given the right (or should I say wrong) circumstances.

I’m late to work. It only takes 15 to 20 minutes to get to school, depending on the traffic, but this morning I hit the snooze on the alarm one too many times. I hate getting out of bed—who doesn’t—but it shouldn’t be so hard to get to work at 8AM. So I’m in a hurry, driving the legal limit in town because I’m cautious even in my hurry. Mostly I worry on the inside and my actions stay the same. I maintain the appearance of calm.

I make the left onto the road to the community college where I work, still a half mile and a major intersection away. As I approach a flattened S-curve, a car coming the opposite direction out of the curve careens across the thick yellow line into my lane. Oh no. It’s going to hit me, I’m sure of it. It’s a game of chicken. There’s nowhere to turn to get out of the way. I’ll have to jerk the wheel to get out of the way, but which direction? My mind is numb. I can’t think. It’s all happening too fast. But the car kept drifting, on a vector out of the curve that takes it off the road entirely. It hops the curb and crashes through a hedgerow and a chain link fence behind the bushes and into an irrigation ditch. I’m so startled and scared. One second I think the car is going to hit me head on, the next it has crashed on the side of the road right in front of me. Houses line the left side of the road, opposite the hedgerow and ditch. I hadn’t seen what the driver looked like. I keep driving to work. I don’t know what to do. I figure someone from one of the houses will call the police or a car behind me will stop. My hands are shaking.

So that’s the story, and it raises a lot of questions I’m still trying to figure out all of these years later. Why didn’t I stop? Why did I assume that someone else would help? Here’s where it gets complicated. Let me first start by telling another story.

In 1964 a woman named Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered outside of her apartment in New York City. According to a New York Times article written about the incident, 37 of her neighbors heard her screams and did nothing. Readers were outraged by the story. Everyone wanted to understand why they didn’t intervene or at least call the cops. One of the neighbors famously said, “I didn’t want to get involved.” Were these people moral monsters? Or was there some rational explanation as to why they didn’t help? Psychologists were very interested in explaining how this could have happened. Researchers found evidence for something they called the bystander effect. When multiple people witness a situation where help might be needed, the responsibility to act is diffused among the bystanders, and so too is the blame for not acting. So maybe this partially explains my not helping the other driver. I was one of many bystanders.

Study after study has shown this diffusion of responsibility to do something if others are present. Everyone assumes that someone else knows what is going on, whether it is a true emergency or not. Everyone also assumes that someone else will do something about the emergency. Say three people are in a room filling out questionnaires and then smoke starts pouring in through an air vent. The three will be less likely to do anything about the smoke than a person alone in the room. Same thing happens in other helping scenarios. Another study had participants in groups of two, three, or six, (though separated physically while communicating via intercom) when a confederate would pretend to have a seizure. The bigger the group, the less likely an individual was to do anything to help the person in trouble.

Here’s how psychologists like Latané and Darley explain it. In order for someone to help in a given situation, the person must (1) notice what’s going on, (2) decide that it’s an emergency, (3) feel personal responsibility to act, (4) also feel competent to act, and then (5) consciously decide to intervene. It’s sometimes hard to determine whether a situation truly is an emergency. If there are many other bystanders, a person might wait and rely on the reactions of others to interpret the situation. So everybody freezes and waits to figure out what is going on. The diffusion of responsibility when there are many bystanders can also keep a person from going through all five steps. For instance, a person might not feel personally responsible if there are so many others around who could act instead. Or they might not feel as competent as others surely are. Besides that, a person might feel inhibited to act when others are watching and evaluating their performance.

So perhaps I was experiencing the bystander effect. Perhaps not, though. I did notice what had happened. I did know that it was an emergency. And I definitely felt some responsibility to act. But still I didn’t. So far my research into social psychology has not explained my behavior. Interestingly, a recent meta-analysis (2011) of all of the bystander effect research shows that the “the bystander effect is attenuated when situations were perceived as dangerous.” In other words, when a situation is unambiguous and serious, such as when someone is in obvious physical harm, there is little to no evidence of the bystander effect. My situation was rather unambiguous: the other driver was clearly in danger of physical harm. I should not have been subject to the bystander effect then.

As a side note, it also turns out that the standard telling of the murder of Kitty Genovese is wrong in some key details. When Kitty was first attacked, a neighbor did call out, “Leave that girl alone!” which prompted her attacker to retreat. He came after her again in the vestibule of her apartment building, now out of sight of most of the neighborhood, and raped and stabbed her. At least two neighbors did call the police, and when an ambulance arrived, a neighbor was holding Kitty in her arms, though she didn’t know the attacker was gone. Far from being the cold and heartless neighbors, some of them did intervene in the situation. The neighbor who said he didn’t want to get involved had his reasons: as a gay man he didn’t want to draw attention to himself by the police who often thought homosexuals were a menace (this being 1964 when the same New York Times ran headlines like “Growth of Overt Homosexuality in City Provokes Wide Concern” mere months before the killing). Somehow the reporting by the newspaper got some key facts wrong in the narrative. This doesn’t invalidate any of the psychology research that the killing inspired. But it does make it a less useful example of the bystander effect.

I first encountered the original NYT’s version of the story of Kitty Genovese in an anthology for a Composition course I taught for a community college. The class was composed of high school students who were dual-enrolled in high school and college, and they received college credit for the course. The high school was the poorest performing one in the city, located in the area of lowest socio-economic status. One of my students related to the incident in the story. He said he’d heard gunshots outside his home at night but done nothing about it. No one said a word against him in the class. I didn’t blame him either. What was a skinny 16 year old going to do about gun violence in his neighborhood? If he called the cops, it would only cause trouble for himself and his family. I had a real soft spot for that kid. He was clearly struggling with the work. Not that he couldn’t do it, but something was holding him back, maybe family life, or an unsafe neighborhood, or maybe he had to work. I didn’t know, and couldn’t know, how hard his life was.

* * *

My other explanation for my behavior of not helping is that I was in a hurry. In another famous psychology study, seminarians in a hurry to give a talk were less likely than non-hurried seminarians to stop and help someone slumped over and moaning and who seemed to be having trouble breathing. To add insult to injury, in one of the conditions for the study the seminarians were supposed to give a talk on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, while in the other condition they gave a talk on a different topic unrelated to helping. Some of the hurried seminarians “literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way!” (107). After they gave the talk, the seminarians were asked if they had recently seen someone in need of help and when had they last helped someone else. Most of those in a hurry realized, upon reflection, that the person who was slumped over was in need of help. But in the moment, they were too focused on the task at hand (getting to their talk) to realize the ethical dilemma in front of them. Indeed, the authors of the study even acknowledge that the seminarians were “helping” the researchers by giving the talk in the middle of the study. In other words, it was a conflict of helping. I was in a hurry to get to work. Maybe I was no worse than a seminarian. But in the moment I did realize it was an emergency. I wasn’t like the seminarians who only realized later what they should have noticed on their way to the talk. Another explanation slips away.

It still gnaws at me that I did nothing to help. I didn’t get a good look at the driver—I don’t know if it was a man or a woman. Whoever it was might have been seriously hurt. I had a cell phone in my pocket, though I didn’t have a local number at the time. Some cell phones then couldn’t call 911 anyway. Not that I was thinking all this at the time. First I was scared because the car swerved in front of me and could easily have hit me head on. My car had an airbag, and I always wear a seatbelt, but still… two cars traveling 35MPH in a head on collision is bad. Then I was shocked at what was happening. When everyone is following the traffic laws and transportation is running smoothly I hardly notice what is going on around me. But when a car careens across lanes and off the road it’s jarring. The normal patterns have been broken. But that’s the very definition of an emergency. That’s when someone has to do something that they wouldn’t ordinarily do.

I was also confounded by where to park the car if I were to stop. To my right, the road had curbs high enough that I couldn’t pull off the road into the grass. There were residential driveways on the other side, but I would’ve felt strange parking in someone’s driveway. Perhaps that’s what I should have done. Rang the doorbell. Used a landline to call emergency help. Instead I was further down the road’s curve, that much closer to the community college where I worked. With each passing second it was harder to stop, until it was too late.

So this is the truth of it, and I don’t really like it. I wanted to have social science explain my bad behavior away. But mostly it was a matter of my personal traits. I’m indecisive. While momentarily shocked by almost getting hit, I then couldn’t decide where to stop my car. I didn’t want to pull into a stranger’s driveway for fear of an awkward explanation and imposition. I hate awkward situations and making others unhappy. And each moment I remained indecisive, the inertia of doing nothing took me farther away from the entire situation until it felt too late to stop because then I might have to explain why I didn’t stop immediately. I felt guilty and ashamed, and I didn’t want to face up to my failure.

I still don’t.


About half a year ago I wrote about a time when I was a Good Samaritan, although a reluctant one (you can read it here). I’m very interested in the topic of altruism, and the reasons why sometimes we help others and sometimes turn away. I’m going to keep coming back to it.

Articles referenced:

Darley, J. M., & Batson, C. D. (1973). ‘From Jerusalem to Jericho’: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 27(1), 100-108. doi:10.1037/h0034449

Fischer, P., Krueger, J. I., Greitemeyer, T., Vogrincic, C., Kastenmüller, A., Frey, D., & … Kainbacher, M. (2011). The bystander-effect: A meta-analytic review on bystander intervention in dangerous and non-dangerous emergencies. Psychological Bulletin, 137(4), 517-537. doi:10.1037/a0023304

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