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The Impassive Bystander

Police later reported receiving four 911 calls, but still, no one stooped to hold Torres's hand until help came.

* * *

Now, you look on with all the brilliance of hindsight and say you would have done it differently. You would have called for help the moment the woman collapsed on the hospital floor. You would have pulled the man out of the street after the car hit him and other cars just passed him by.

Or would you?

Are you really as good as you think you are? Deep down inside, is there a hero waiting there or an apathetic little soul soaked in indifference?

* * *

Sociologists and psychologists have long studied what is known as bystander behavior. They say people are often unsure how to react to such events because they have difficulty processing what they are seeing. Witnesses to tragedy, especially when events are uncertain, often look around first.

If no one else is moving, individuals have a tendency to mimic the unmoving crowd. Although we might think otherwise, most of us would not have behaved much differently from the people we see in these recent videos, experts say. Deep inside, we are herd animals, conformists. We care deeply what other people are doing and what they think of us. The classic story of conformist behavior can be found in the 1964 case of Kitty Genovese, the 28-year-old bar manager who was slain by a man who raped and stabbed her for about half an hour as neighbors in a New York neighborhood looked on. No one opened a door for her. No one ran into the street to intervene.

Later, investigators would say that no single person saw the entire attack and some people misinterpreted the screams, but the case still prompted sociologists to study how the slaying could have happened on a populated street. The case produced a term -- the "bystander effect" -- to explain why people do not act when others clearly appear to be suffering in front of them.

"The larger question about the culture of indifference has a lot to do with bystander behavior," says H. Wesley Perkins, a professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in Geneva, N.Y. "The bystander phenomenon is generated by the perception that other people are not doing anything about it, therefore I shouldn't either."

After the event is over and comes to greater public light, "people think everybody is mean and cruel-hearted and doesn't care," Perkins says. "But much of the bystander phenomenon happens because people are looking on and thinking, if they don't see someone else coming to the person's aid, then the person must not be in trouble."

But it's different when the bystander is a solitary witness: "They are more likely to come to another person's aid than if there are other people around and nobody is doing anything."


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