The term “the bystander effect” was coined after Kitty Genovese, a young New Yorker, was brutally stabbed to death over the course of a half an hour while many bystanders (the original count in 1964 was set at 38 although later police determined it to be closer to 12) watched and heard the carnage and did nothing to stop it. The police were not called until Kitty had been raped, robbed and murdered. Once called, they were at the scene within two minutes. The implications of this are staggering, sobering and a bit sickening. I will not judge any of the witnesses to the crime as there are many factors involved but I do consider it one of the great travesties of our time that this could have occurred in our civilized society. This story only bears repeating because of the important lesson it teaches.
I was reminded of this one day in the gym as I saw a man out of the corner of my eye struggling to squat a very heavily loaded bar. I barely had time to wonder if he was going to drop it on himself when the query became a certainty. The bar veered wildly from side to side as he staggered underneath it. He was crouched so far forward in his squat that dropping it on the floor behind him was not possible. I cringe remembering what happened next. He went down forward on his knees, the bar with at least several hundred pounds on it sliding down his neck, and over his head before crashing on the floor in front of him. He could have easily broken or otherwise injured his back or neck but he was fortunate and stood up, shaking it off and, I think, shaking a bit from nerves as well.
Here’s the sad part: In addition to myself there were at least 6 other people on the weight floor and not one of us moved a muscle to help him. When it was all said and done, several of us rushed over to see if he was okay but we all watched him go down. It was not a fast fall. Even though I certainly could not lift the kind of weight he was handling, I could have at least helped stabilize the bar enough to help him not roll it over his neck. With the aid of another person, I’m quite sure we could have prevented it from falling on him at all. I went home with my faith in myself badly shaken.
It wasn’t long before I had a chance to revisit my demons. On the way out of the gym some time later, a handicapped woman woman walking behind me slipped and fell on the ice. It was one of those dramatic falls that ends with arms akimbo and legs in wrong positions and lots of screaming. I hesitated. I was holding my baby in my arms with the other two children clinging to my legs. It was snowing and bitterly cold. There were several other people walking out at the same time. I was tempted. But I didn’t want to be The Bystander again. Commanding my two ambulatory children to stay put, I ran back to her and offered her the hand not holding my baby. “Don’t touch me!” she screamed. “You hurt me! You hurt me!!”
“It’s okay,” I tried to soothe her. She would not be soothed. I yelled at another woman walking out to run back inside and get help. Then, as she was far too big for me to lift (especially with a baby on my hip), I knelt down in the snow next to her and patted her arm. “We’re going to get you help. You’re going to be okay.” I stayed with her until help came. I don’t honestly know if I did much for calming her – she screamed non stop the entire time, scaring my kids witless – but I do know that on the car ride home I got to explain to my children how important it is to not be a bystander.
Since then it has become a running joke in my household as to the number of times I have called 911. Afraid to be caught up in “the bystander effect” – meaning that in a group of multiple witnesses to a crime, each person assumes that someone else is taking care of the situation – I have called emergency personnel for a fight I saw break out in a liquor store parking lot, a bike vs. car crash, a lost child (not mine, thank heavens), a bike vs. road crash, a menacing dog in a crowded park, a bike vs. tree crash, and an electrical fire during a thunderstorm among other things. (Although the best emergency call I have ever made was in college when my roommate had an accident lighting a propane barbecue. A gigantic ball of flame rolled up her body. As I wrapped my arms around her to… help her? put out the fire? hug her?… and tried to reassure her that all the singed hair falling off of her over my arms was not actually her singed hair falling off, my gut instinct was to call for help. I called my parents. Who lived miles away. Brilliant. Thankfully other than some minor burns and the hair she was all right, my idiocy not withstanding.)
But it isn’t just life or death situations in which the bystander effect occurs. Not every situation is so drastic as to warrant a 911 call. What would you do if you saw these models biting it? Would you offer a hand?
Or what if someone fell next to you in step class? (This happened to me once – we both started laughing so hard when she ate it that I ended up on the floor with her, trying not to pee my pants. I’m sure the teacher loved us.) Would you offer to help a newbie in a Body Pump class, like Gym Buddy Krista does on a regular basis, when they are obviously intimidated by the amount of equipment it requires? Do you offer a spot on the weight floor when someone needs one but is too proud to ask? Do you say hi and smile first?
Ask anyone today about the Kitty Genovese story and almost all will reply that they, certainly, would have helped. At least they would have called the police. And I hope that’s true. Obviously there have been no controlled studies done replicating this situation to find out if we would actually do what we say we would. But research done after the fact has shown that there is one significant factor in influencing whether or not people get caught up in the bystander effect. It’s education. Once you know about the effect and the problems stemming from it, you are considerably less likely to be caught up in its inertia.
Consider yourselves taught.
Now – you teach me: Have you ever been caught in the bystander effect? Have you ever reached out to a stranger? Has a stranger ever helped you? Have you ever walked down a slick catwalk in 9-inch platform heels in a dress held together with boob tape and a prayer?
*Note: For all of you on my e-mail list, feedburner had a weird seizure today and sent a phantom post earlier this evening. It was the Heinous Veinous one. I have no idea how or why this happened. My apologies to all who got it and thought I’d lost my mind.