Thursday, April 08, 2004

Diffused Responsibility

Dan put up a post about the girl that was tossed over the parapet by her drunk boyfriend and fell to her death( An Inspector Calls ) . He wasn't talking so much about the motive of the crime or that it was such a shame that the girl had to die. He talked about why was it that when she got dragged out of the office by her hair, no one lifted a finger to help?

This brought me back to social psych lectures about 7 years ago. Good God, that was a long time ago! Anyway, I remember doing this case about Kitty Genovese and how the poor woman got stabbed to death, despite screaming and attracting the attention of 38 residents in the blocks of flats around her.So why? Why didn't anyone help the lady being stabbed? Why didn't anyone in the office try to stop the sloshed boyfriend from dragging the lady out of the office to her death?

It seems that it is human nature to wait for someone else to help. The hypothesis is that the more people around, the less likely you are to help. Because you think that someone else will do it. And you share the responsibility of helping with all the people around you. So, in terms of proportions, the more people around, the smaller your fraction of responsibility is and therefore, the less likely you are to help. And at the end of it all, all those who did not help, are likely to feel a great sense of confusion and will be upset. But a great lot of help that'd would. The lady is dead, you damn well feel upset.

Apparently, in the 2 seconds you take to process whether you should help the victim, 5 things cross your mind.

1. The emergency must be seen.
One must not be preoccupied by other things, one must notice the emergency. How an office full of people do not notice that there is something out of the ordinary is fairly difficult to believe. So we accept that they all saw it and some where down the chain of decision points, they decided not to help.

Having seen the emergency, the bystander must next question..

2. Is it really an emergency? Would you be caught out and embarrassed if it turned out not to be one?
This is where the prosocial action may have failed. They saw that it was an emergency- I mean, who wouldn't when the lady was being dragged out by her hair? But they were too embarrassed to do anything about it.

3. Supposing some bystanders actually did realise that there was an emergency, would they have taken the responsibility to act? There were so many people around, who was going to step forward? Damn the Asian saying of "the nail that sticks out gets banged in"

The truth is, I suspect that at each decision point, more people who actually saw the confrontation dropped out. From what I recall, one woman did try to intervene and got punched by said drunk man. So one could also speculate that the rest who may have wanted to help and witnessed the brave soul that try to stand up to the assailant made the decision against it because...

4. They did not know what to do and how to help. Imagine an office full of women, upon witnessing one of their colleagues being dragged out and another hurt from actual confrontation, chances are the rest are going to think that they had no way of helping the victim. In the comfort and safety of my home, I'm going to state the obvious way of helping. PICK UP THE PHONE AND CALL THE POLICE! But apparently, that must not have gone through the heads of any of the bystanders.

Even if at every previous decision point, an affirmative decision was made, i.e. I saw the guy come in drunk, he was drunk and he dragged my colleague out by her hair. I think I should do something about it, maybe throw my shoe at him to distract him... there may still be the chance that nothing gets done, because

5. Making the final decision perhaps would require one to think about the costs to oneself and if I stepped in and helped, there is a possibiity that he might let go of her and come after me, it may not be worth it.

So in the two seconds one needs to react to the situation at hand, there are possibly five unconscious points where one could have decided not to help and like I said earlier, it is possible that different people decided at different points and different reasons why they couldn't help and only one person made it to point 5 and decided to act. Unfortunately, her efforts weren't enough to stop the guy from eventually killing the lady and if the rest of the office is traumatised by her death and feel partially to blame for it, well, the ugly truth is, yes they are.

But then again, it is always easier to analyse the situation from a far, as a uninvolved, indifferent third party. I guess it may have been different if I were there, but then again, it may have been different if any other variable was changed just so slightly. Unfortunately, the confluence of events made it such that the outcome was a death that although could have been prevented, wasn't and it would just go down in the books as yet another senseless crime of passion even though that it is a sombering piece of social commentary if one chose to actually see it as such.

Ondine tossed this thought in at 15:50

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