Often you hear people make statements such as: ‘people don’t help each other out anymore!’. This broad claim is applied to many different situations. This idea is often paired with the individualistic mindset that is supposedly growing, especially in western countries. Everyone is only focusing on their own goals and obligations, not paying attention to the ones around them. A second, more practical example is that of crisis situations. This could be a situation in which a stranger needs help, for instance someone being harassed, got injured, or can’t do something. There are so many stories on people suffering while onlookers do absolutely nothing. And immediately it’s assumed that those bystanders are cold-hearted individuals who do not care for others’ troubles.
But I want to argue that there are many factors involved that cause people not to help out, it is a very complex process. Researchers have found that these onlookers are not likely to help out because of the bystander effect. Imagine a scenario in a busy street where a person trips and falls. People either quickly glance at the ‘victim’ or might ignore them altogether. But why doesn’t anyone feel inclined to help out? Before discussing the mechanisms at work I will present a different scenario that was used in an experimental setting.
Imagine sitting in a waiting room with two other people, waiting for the researchers to come and get you. Suddenly a bit of smoke seems to enter the room. You study the faces of the two other people in the room. They do not seem to react to the smoke at all. More and more smoke starts to fill the room, yet no one reacts, including yourself. Now, let’s change the setting a bit. This time you’re alone in the waiting room, smoke starts filling the room. This time you get up to warn the researchers. [Click here to see a video depicting this situation]
This is more or less what was found in Latane and Darley’s (1968) study. People are more likely to report the smoke when sitting alone in the room. This principle can be applied to many different situations in which there is some kind of danger or emergency, and action is required.
So why don’t we help out?
But if you’d ask people how they would react in such a situation, most people would probably say that they would definitely help out. However, social factors are much more important than we think. Unknowingly we are incredibly influenced by the presence of others. But why does this make us less likely to help out? What is going on? First of all, there is uncertainty. Situations are often very ambiguous and it’s hard to interpret what is going on. This makes it even more difficult to react accordingly, we don’t know what is expected of us. Is the smoke filling the room normal? Or is it dangerous? Is the person tripping and falling really hurt? Or do they not want me to approach them? Second, there is the diffusion of responsibility. Others are present, why aren’t they helping out or doing something? Why do I have to be the one to report it? Or: I am sure someone else will help the person that fell down.
When to help out?
It gets even trickier when the bystander effect is present due to the two aforementioned principles involved. Because you could argue that the bystander effect begets the bystander effect. If you’re in an ambiguous situation where no one is helping out, you might look at other people’s reactions to find out whether it’s serious and help is required. But that is the issue, everyone has a straight face, looking at how others are reacting.
Therefore, interpretation of the situation can be very problematic. To draw up another example, imagine a man and a woman fighting in public. They are screaming at each other and at one point, the man hits the woman. Should you step in? Do they know each other? Is that ‘normal’ behavior to them? What if the man (or woman) ends up trying to (physically) fight you if you butt in? I can list many examples from the news of people trying to help out that resulted in their death.
Helping: rural vs urban
There are different factors that can influence bystander effect. It has been hypothesized many times that people in rural settings are more likely to help out than in urban settings. And Steblay (1987) found results in line with this statement. I am going to speculate here that anonymity might play a role in helping behavior as well. In smaller communities, such as rural areas, people might be related to each other in one way or another. And we are more likely help those out that we have some kind of relation to (e.g. acquaintances, coworkers, neighbors).
How to make people help!
If one person approaches a person that needs help, more people will likely follow. This is because someone interpreted the situation, and they assumed the person needed help. Therefore, more people are more likely to follow their lead. We can always ask someone if they need help. In my experience, this is an easy way to find out if you should do something. There have only been a few times that people were unkind, but they might be embarrassed that they fell or really value their independence. If you are the one that needs help, screaming ‘help!’ doesn’t always work. Point at someone and try to directly ask people for help. This way you give people the responsibility to help out, eliminating the diffusion of responsibility principle.
Why aren’t we helping out anymore?
I have read statements by people claiming that we have become individualistic and we no longer help each other anymore. First of all, I would like to challenge this claim by asking what time period we are comparing today with. Was there ever a time when we actively helped each other out? From a sociologist perspective, over the last hundred years, we did become more individualistic. And often the possible negative consequences are discussed and the positive ones are left untouched. I would like to argue that individualism has both detrimental and stimulating effects, both on macro and micro level. However I am not convinced that individualism leads to less helping behavior. Our genetic makeup still influences this type of behavior, as we are likely to carry out altruistic acts, especially for our kin.
Latane, B., & Darley, J. M. (1968). Group inhibition of bystander intervention in emergencies. Journal of personality and social psychology, 10(3), 215.
Steblay, N. M. (1987). Helping behavior in rural and urban environments: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 102(3), 346.
First picture source.