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


A Few Dollars Short, or The Reluctant Samaritan

[edit: this is a true story from my life, in case that wasn’t clear]

I hate grocery shopping. Usually I stop at this small Hugo’s on the way home from school. It reminds me of the grocery store my mom would go to when I was little. I prefer the small in this case; I have enough trouble making decisions I don’t need to be overwhelmed by food. My food choices stay simple. Frozen pizza. Macaroni. Canned soup. Soda. Potato chips/Cheez-Its. Microwave dinners. I zip up and down the aisles so I can get out of there faster. One of my former students works here. I hope I don’t see him. Sometimes he works the checkout and then he’ll be unavoidable. He’s not there. I put my groceries on my credit card. I don’t have the cash to cover the groceries. What I do find after I check out is her.

I’m almost out the door. “Excuse me.” I stop, my chest feeling a little tight, fearing what words would come next. Could I pretend not to hear even though I’ve already signaled that I have? “Excuse me, do you think you could give me a ride?” I turn back towards her and it’s too late. I know I won’t say no even though I desperately want to. The first thing I notice is her ugly brown coat. Her hair is stringy and her face unwashed. She’s squinting up at me. She’s fairly heavy set and sitting in a motorized cart provided by the store. Someone else can give her a ride. Please. It’s already 4 o’clock and the sun is going down on this Autumn day way up north. I tell her okay, but I have to put my groceries in the trunk first. Then I’ll pull around to the entrance and pick her up.

Much later I’ll realize that I could have just driven away. I’ve walked by lots of people asking for money in big cities, stared straight ahead and ignored them. Didn’t give them or my decision a second thought. I can’t help everyone. I don’t have the resources. But I gave her my word.

She has a walker that I stash in the back seat. She plops down in the passenger seat. Her unpleasant smell fills the car. Her voice is nearly as unpleasant. Whiny and nasal. She says she missed the bus and that her friend was unavailable to give her a ride. She wonders if I could take her to the bingo hall. She also wonders if I could give her thirty dollars for a motel room. She informs me that she is homeless.

How could anyone be homeless in North Dakota? It’s too far north—you can’t sleep outside in winter no matter how thick your coat. It’s going to be cold tonight. Below freezing. She needs shelter.

I don’t have thirty dollars. I know there isn’t much money in my wallet. I don’t like to carry cash because I’ll just spend it. My dad tells me frequently that I should keep some cash on me in case of emergencies. To illustrate the point, my mom carries around an emergency $20 bill which, if she uses for any reason, she immediately replaces for the next time.

Before I get in the car I check my wallet. Four one dollar bills. If I’m going to give her anything approaching what she’s asked for, I’ll have to go to the ATM machine. The only problem is that you can only take money out in multiples of $20 and I’m fairly positive I have less than $40 so the most I can withdraw is $20, plus the bank will charge a $2 service fee. I really need to open an account locally, but I hate banks and dealing with money. I don’t want to overdraw the account, though. I did that once already and it was a mess. Since I don’t have a branch within a few states adjacent, I can’t make a deposit to cover any overdraft. My paycheck from the school is directly deposited, but that’s not until the end of the month. The other time I overdrew the account, I had to ask my sister in Ohio to make a deposit to cover the amount plus penalties, and then I paid her back when payday finally rolled around. I live month to month. I have no savings, but no outstanding debts either.

I like to help people when I can, but the giving of money is so awkward. I hate tipping situations. How much to give. What to say. I hate it when the offering plate is passed in church.

But she probably needs the money. She needs to be indoors tonight. Though there’s no way I’m inviting her to my basement apartment. I don’t even have a bed for myself. I sleep in a sleeping bag on a thin pad filled with air. Basically I camp out every night in my basement room. I don’t have any furniture, either. My TV sits on a plastic crate. Naturally I have a TV, even if I don’t have a desk, dresser, or bed, because of course I have a TV. With cable, no less. It’s included with my rent. I share the phone with the other dormer who rents the other basement bedroom. The main room in the basement has a pool table, a hi-fi tuner, and a dart board. I find it all rather dreary and depressing. In addition to my dismal living conditions, my girlfriend of the past six months broke up with me right before I moved to North Dakota. A few weeks after I moved, my mom nearly died from complications with her hysterectomy. I haven’t made any friends here yet. Overall, this is not the best time for me.

I’m not aware of any homeless shelter in town. I ask her if she knows of one.

No, she doesn’t.

I drive to the ATM of the not-my-bank and slip my card in the reader. I type my PIN and accept the $2 fee. The machine spits out a twenty, and I hand it over to her along with the four ones I had in my wallet. I explain that it’s all that I have right now. Then I drive her over to the bingo hall, which is across the street from the bank. It’s connected to the mall. At least they call it a mall. It has a K-Mart, a Christian bookstore, the DMV, and a climbing wall. Oh, and a bingo hall. The entrance on this side has a hair dresser. Her friend is going to pick her up here.

I tell her I have some change back in my apartment, and that I’ll come right back so she can have the full $30, though I’m not sure I have six dollars in change. The house is right around the corner from K-Mart. It ends up I have $4.82. I stuff it in a plastic sandwich bag and head back to the bingo hall. She’s not there. I walk inside the mall, peer into the hair dresser’s, go further down the empty hall. Where could she be? She can’t have gone far. She can hardly walk. It’s only been a few minutes since I dropped her off. I give up. She’s gone.

The daylight’s faded completely. Now I have to go home and unload my groceries.

Later on I call my ex-girlfriend and tell her what I’ve done. There’s no one else to tell. I can’t figure out if I’ve been taken. It’s so easy to assume the worst about the woman. She wants money to gamble or for drugs or whatever, anything but shelter for the night. I don’t even feel particularly benevolent, but neither do I feel regret over my actions. Regret would imply I could have acted otherwise.