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The Bystander Effect and a Civil Society

Our Disconnected Society

You may be familiar with the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan: A man from the ancient city of Samaria sees another man lying in the road. Many people ignored the man and pass him by; but the Samaritan stops to help him. He followed The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Most people don’t come close to acting like the Good Samaritan. Ask yourself:  Have you ever been in a situation where something wrong was occurring right before your eyes but you didn’t know how to act? If others see it as well, do you expect they will act? If you sit back and let others intervene, you are the victim of the bystander effect.

The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon wherein a bystander is unlikely to help someone in need when there’s presence of other people around. The more the bystanders, the less likelihood it is that you will intervene. Let someone else do it controls your thoughts and actions.

One of the worst cases of bystander apathy occurred a few years ago when a fast-food worker in full uniform in the city of Salem, New Jersey viciously attacked a young mother in front of the victim’s young son and the entire attack was caught on tape and later posted on Facebook.

In the video, a woman wearing a McDonald’s uniform is shown attacking another woman. The victim falls to the ground and while on the ground, the suspect punches the victim approximately 20 times. As the attack is going on, the victim’s toddler son is seen pleading for the suspect to stop and tries to kick the suspect in an attempt to make her stop. At one point during the video, the suspect can be heard saying: “You better get your son before I kick him in the face too!” At the end of the video, the suspect appears to spit on the victim as she lays helplessly on the ground.

Another example is when Ki-Suck Han was pushed off a subway platform in NYC by Naeem Davis. Mr. Han was hit by the train and died while observers did nothing other than snap a shot on their cellphones all the while Mr. Han sought a way off the tracks before the oncoming train did him in.

One of the most controversial aspects of this story is that of a freelance photographer for the New York Post who was waiting for a train when he said he saw a man approach Han at the Times Square station, get into an altercation with him and push him into the train's path.

The Post Use NYC subway showed Han with his head turned toward the train, his arms reaching up but unable to climb off the tracks in time.

The photographer, R. Umar Abbasi, told NBC's "Today" show that he was trying to alert the motorman to what was going on by flashing his camera. He said he was shocked that people nearer to the victim didn't try to help in the 22 seconds before the train struck. According to Abbasi, "The people who were standing close to him ... they could have moved and grabbed him and pulled him up. No one made an effort," he said.

What does the bystander effect say about our culture? Sure, we’re afraid to act for fear that we will be the next victim of the bully. But it does deeper. Personal responsibility is no longer seen as an ethical value to care about. It is, in part, due to the disconnected society we live in today. People do not feel an obligation to help their neighbor or someone in trouble. The problem is as more of such incidents occur, the less likely we can remain a civil society.

Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 6, 2020. You can sign up for our newsletter and learn more about Dr. Mintz’s activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter .