Today we have a guest blog post from Fiona, a reader from New Zealand who has written about the psychological research into the phenomenon of bystander intervention and apathy. It’s fascinating how many different approaches there are to this issue, which was kicked off by the infamous death of Kitty Genovese.
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Catherine ‘Kitty’ Genovese’s untimely and gruesome death in 1964 hardly caused a ripple in the media of the day. Reported only in a small column of the New York Times, it was purely through a conversational misunderstanding between New York city police commissioner, Fredrick Lussen and journalist Abe Rosenthal that lead to further examination of the Genovese case. What was unusual about Ms. Genovese’s death was that it had been prolonged, loud, and witnessed. It was not witnessed by just one or two people, an astonishing thirty-eight of Ms. Genovese’s neighbours heard her screams and pleas for help over the thirty five minutes it took for her attacker to repeatedly stab her, sexually assault her, then leave her to die. Not one of these thirty-eight people made any attempt whatsoever to assist Ms. Genovese, not aiding her physically, or even contacting police until it was too late.
The horrific nature of this event, not just the torturous murder of a young woman returning home from work, but also the apparent cruel paralysis that gripped the bystanders, sparked an important series of experiments in social psychology. Psychologists sought to understand and predict the phenomena that came to be known as bystander intervention. There are various theories as to what causal influences corroborate to create bystander intervention (or nonintervention). Some of these have included social-cognitive theories while others have focused on perception of self by others . There has been discussion emphasizing that each theory has arisen in a specific historical and social climate that has profoundly influenced them . As well as those who are critical of the ‘mechanical and causal’ approach these theories have taken. Contemporary neurobiological theory and the Human Givens approach can also be applied to expound and perhaps negate bystander intervention.
Abe Rosenthal went on to write a book about Ms. Genovese’s murder and the ‘big city apathy’ that he believed was behind her neighbours’ inability to act on her behalf. New York City psychiatrist Dr. Iago Galdston, commented at the time; ‘I would assign this to the effect of the megalopolis in which we live which makes closeness very difficult and leads to the alienation of the individual to the group’ . Bibb Lantané and John Darley (1968/1993) examined the police reports from a social psychology perspective, subsequently countering Rosenthal’s journalistic hypothesis by suggesting that it was, in fact, the large number within the witness group that caused the nonintervention, rather than apathy or indifference. Lantané and Darley’s theory is perhaps the most prominent of all the social psychology theories cited in literature on bystander intervention. They state that within a large group, personal responsibility lessens; therefore it is less likely that individuals would respond to a situation, this is referred to as responsibility diffusion . If there is uncertainty around the nature of an event, it is suggested that individuals look for social cues to assess how to behave9. If there are no apparent ‘concern’ reactions, there can develop what Lantané and Darley refer to as a ‘state of pluralistic ignorance’10 where no one offers assistance. When a situation has been assessed and it is decided that there is an emergency requiring intervention, the bystander needs to decide if it will be them that intervenes. Lantané and Darley conclude that if there are many bystanders the ‘costs’, that is stress, embarrassment, or shame, of nonintervention is lower. When a person is alone and encounters an apparent emergency situation they are much more likely to respond quickly and without hesitation.
Self-perception theories are concerned with individual’s perceptions, of other people’s interpretations of their behaviour. Shalom Schwartz and Avi Gottlieb (1976) hypothesised that evaluation apprehension, being aware that other bystanders are observing, would neutralise diffusion of responsibility and negate the bystander effect. Their conjecture was clearly demonstrated in their experiments completed in Jerusalem. This research was also unique, as they specifically investigated response to a violent attack, whereas previous research had been around illness/seizure, accidental fall, potential fire and the like. Roy Baumeister (1982) also argues that it is not only assessment of ambiguity around an event, but also evaluation apprehension that affects altruism or intervention. He further argues that it is the desire to act in ways, we believe are expected of us, (such as empathetic helping behaviour in an apparent emergency situation, or heroic behaviour in an aggressive situation involving powerless victim/s) in order to be judged as having ‘done the right thing’, or not ‘over reacting’ in a non-emergency situation. These again are purely selfish motivations for altruism.
Frances Cherry (1995) points out that each theory emerges in a particular historical, cultural, and social climate that illuminates differing aspects of the original Genovese murder and therefore bystander intervention. Lantané and Darley had recently gained their doctorates at the time of Ms. Genovese’s murder, they came from a school of predictive psychology. Cherry candidly discusses her personal ‘shift in framework’11 towards interpretative psychology whereby the processes of how we make sense of the world are studied, rather than predictions (hypotheses) to how average people might act in a hypothetical situation (removing any anomalous results outside of the regular bell curve). Parallel to Cherry’s shift in thinking, feminist culture was beginning to take hold in society at large. Kitty Genovese’s murder was now being approached in the light that she had also been raped. However, it took until 1975 before the appearance of experimental research aimed at gauging bystander intervention during violent attack on a woman by a man. According to Cherry increasing social awareness of the influence of ethnicity, gender, economic status, age, and powerlessness in prejudice and therefore behaviour toward others should alter the way in which theorising in contemporary social psychology is done. She also adds a cautionary note as to the seemingly concrete nature of social psychology theory; what was relevant in the 60’s was not so pertinent in0 the 70’s. Social theory, Cherry argues, should never be seen as permanent. It would be interesting to see how the contemporary Wikipedia representation of Kitty Genovese, as a lesbian with a live in girlfriend, might alter future bystander intervention analysis.
Richard Williams (2002) is also deeply concerned with the overall state of social psychology, inferring that the mechanical experimental search for variables and causal effect asks erroneous questions, from a mistaken perspective. He assertively states that past and current social psychology is neither social or moral, that the reduction of human social interaction to the cold analysis of variables, in his view negates meaning in the results. He believes, in relation to bystander intervention, that rather than seek to understand the ‘elaborate social and personal machinations by which the sense of obligation is extinguished’ and thus explicate altruism, social psychology should instead be asking how to explicate murder. Williams encourages the adoption of more meaningful social psychology experimentation and theorisation flavoured with post-modern philosophy of the self. That is, self as a social being in relation to the Other; ‘the mode of being of the self is thus fundamentally ethical, grounded in heteronomy and ethical obligation to the Other’. This is juxtaposed to the ‘modern’ view of the self as an individual with privatised knowledge, which Williams and colleague Edwin Gantt (1998) see as having no possibility of genuine intimacy, therefore for this self, altruism is based on rational moral principles not empathy.
Neurobiologist Joseph LeDoux’s (1992, 1998) research demonstrates that the amygdala, a small area in the limbic system is fundamental to the flight or fight response. This is possible because of the amygdala’s ‘anatomical connectivity’; the amygdala processes sensory information from two inputs; the fastest pathway contains raw partial images from the thalamus (thalmao-amygdala pathway). The longer pathway is of more complete complex information from the cortex (cortico-amygdala pathway). If a potential emergency is not genuine, the flight fight response is aborted. If the excitatory message from the amygdala is strong enough the thalmao-amygdala synaptic pathway inhibits the cortex from halting the flight fight response so that we can escape true danger. While our pre-conscious brain makes this split second decision, our body freezes for a moment14, this is considered by evolutionary psychologists/biologists to be an adaptive feature of the flight fight reflex, if we are not moving it can be harder for predators to see us. What appears to happen in bystander intervention is that the bystander freezes, while the potential emergency experience is assessed but that this paralysis persists, as a kind of trance, resulting in nonintervention.
This could be perceived as a very biological and perhaps cold way of viewing bystander intervention, but it may also circumnavigate the question of apathy altogether; if nonintervention is a result of ancient brain pathways that have not adapted for modern life, then we are not heartless and need not feel any shame in not intervening. As individuals we can be susceptible to trance states, if bystanders are looking for social cues and find others in the group entranced and therefore gripped in paralysis, it is likely that the social cues read nonintervention. In reality, regardless of social theory, a situation only requires one person to intervene thus developing a snowball effect by giving instructions to those around them; people entranced are excellent at taking directions, if they were not there would be no grotesque hypnosis stage shows. Griffin and Tyrrell (and others utilising the Human Givens approach) specialise in enabling people to master these trance states in order to empower individuals to respond in emergencies – and other situations involving the same amygdala/trance mechanism such as phobia, posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
I applaud Williams and Gantt’s innovative merging of philosophical post-modern thought into social psychology theorising, theirs is a search for genuine and meaningful empirical knowledge, rather than tenuous laboratory research. Griffin and Tyrrell’s psychology theory and practice is based in just such a knowledge-as-experience case study approach. Through the embracing of neurobiological research they are weaving a potent approach of psychotherapy; it is empowering to know that our brains are hardwired in a particular way and that each of us can significantly change how this wiring rules or frees us to respond in situations that we had previously perceived ourselves as powerless in. Cherry has illuminated the fluid and nonpermanent element of social psychology; what is appropriate for one age is not appropriate for another. She also notes that theorists emerge from specific social and cultural climates that influence them innately, we are not isolated observers in life we are involved and subjective. Griffin and Tyrrell are also aware that contemporary culture and society have important significance on our perspective and that any psychology model must evolve or become stagnant. Let us hope we apply knowledge wisely, creatively, and potently, let us hope that we intervene.
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