The American Bystander

Rush in bus.
Rush in bus.

On a humid subway ride into work a few days ago, a woman on the other end of my car had a seizure. Above the buzz of personal conversations, I heard her let out a wail as she collapsed. For several minutes, the train continued down the track, and everyone in the car just stared at the woman.

Finally, at the next stop a man informed the operator of what had happened, and she called 911. Luckily the woman came to as the EMTs carried her off the train. Ever since that morning, I've been haunted by the same question -- why didn't anyone do anything? And more importantly, why didn't I do anything?

In my social psychology course at Wellesley, we learned about the commonly referenced bystander effect -- a psychological phenomenon in which individuals will refrain from offering help to a person in need when other people are present. The bystander effect is attributed to two different psychological processes: social influence -- individuals in a group will monitor and emulate other group members' behavior -- and diffusion of responsibility -- individuals will refrain from intervening because they believe that someone else will.

So, in my form of self-diagnosis, I've repeatedly told myself that the reason I didn't help that woman on the subway is not because I am a bad person, but because I was suffering from an unavoidable psychological symptom. But, if I really believed that my inaction was justified, then why am I so bothered by what happened?

The answer is clear: Just because I can justify what I didn't do does not make it right.

Even though most people probably haven't witnessed a woman having a seizure on the subway, I'm sure if asked, anyone could think of a time when they could have helped and simply didn't. In fact, I know that we have all experienced the bystander effect, because I believe it is one of American society's most pervasive afflictions.

Anyone who follows the news can tell you that most of what we hear or read about these days is another death or another hate crime committed right in our own country. According to a 2012 Pew Research Study, 48 percent of Americans say they regularly watch their local TV news, 38 percent say they regularly read a daily newspaper, and 46 percent say they regularly go online for the news. This shows at least half of Americans are very much aware of the countless people who become victims each day. Yet the fact that these same problems continue to make daily headlines indicates we are all guilty of being a bystander.

Consider the most recent theatre shooting in Nashville. The headlines read "Another Theatre Shooting, Gunman is dead." The use of the word another implies a sense of regularity and normality, so we must ask ourselves how it has come to be that such a connotation can be attached to tragic shootings. But when we read that headline or heard it on the news, most of us just acknowledged how sad it was then told ourselves that there is nothing we can do to help and assumed that someone else would.

If America is just one large group of witnesses, and we are all bystanders forming our behaviors to the actions of the people around us, all while telling ourselves that someone else most certainly will step in, how can we hope to shake the hold of this social psychological spell? The solution lies solely within us, to know the difference between doing what is justifiable and doing what is right, helping those in need when we have the means and opportunity to do so.

I want to be like the man on the subway who told the operator about the woman's seizure, because as soon as he did, people followed suit and offered help. We have the power to choose whether to justify passivity or actively decide to do the right thing, and as a society I believe we ought to break free from our psychological tendency to just stand by.