Let’s Hypothesize: modern day responsibility

After hearing about reflexive modernization in one of my sociology classes and attending a masterclass by Theodore Dalrymple, I started to wonder about modern day accountability and responsibility. I’m gonna put several ideas forward that might already be part of contemporary theories on societies. I will argue that society’s structure can influence perceptions of responsibility.

Society’s structure
Complexity. Complex societies have existed before, there are countless examples of civilizations with hierarchical structures, institutions, and laws. However, nowadays with ongoing globalization, we have established diplomatic relations between countries. This means that decisions made by one society can affect the status quo in another society. Laws are often updated and adjusted to modern day situations, such as the emergence of a virtual space (the internet) in which regulations are also imposed. The difference between today’s societies and ancient societies is that changes are happening so quickly that modern citizens can’t even keep up with the changes. According to the law, you’re supposed to know what is allowed and what isn’t. You can’t blame ignorance. But it’s almost impossible to know every rule implemented by the government. Not knowing the rules and rights means being unaware of responsibility and accountability. Thus, the complexity of today’s societies has made it difficult to know all your responsibilities according to the law. A consequence of the law being strictly imposed on a society, people might only fulfill lawful duties and cast aside their moral duties.

Institutions. With the emergence of a myriad of laws came institutions. In bureaucratic societies, institutions exist merely to monitor other institutions. Many examples exist where the web of institutions might have had an effect in the failure of achieving a goal or unsuccessfully intercepting problems. For instance, in the Netherlands different institutions exist to aid those in problematic situations, each institution has a task in helping these individuals. Though, it’s not always possible for these institutions to effectively work together. When things end badly (e.g. children suffering domestic abused not being helped in time), it’s often the question who’s responsibility it was.

Anonymity. Moral responsibility is also harder to impose in complex societies,  such as helping out your neighbor, being empathetic towards strangers in public spaces (e.g. giving up your seat for elderly), no littering, or being inconsiderate in traffic. In several countries, you can get fined for some behaviors associated with the aforementioned examples. For instance, I have been told that there are strict regulations on littering in Singapore. But not every society has such set rules and it comes down to unwritten rules, norms. But are norms enough for people to feel responsible for their behavior? Or do need people the threat of being fined? Many studies have found evidence for social pressure being enough to either stop people from behaving a certain way or to get them do something. Though, when people live in bigger cities, this social pressure diminishes, suddenly they are anonymous for a large part of the day. In such a setting, people might not feel entirely responsible for their actions.

Individualism. Not only are people in larger societies more anonymous, but they might also be more individualized. In a structured society with many institutions to provide aid to people for their problems, and paid services to meet their daily needs, people’s ties to groups might have weakened. People still organize themselves in groups, and it can greatly help them to get things done. However, they no longer rely on these groups to provide in all of their needs. For example, I do not need to establish a relationship with the cashier at my local supermarket before she’s willing to trade food for money with me. It’s easier to not be responsible because people have less risky relationships to maintain overall.

‘Let’s Hypothesize’ is part of an article series in which I do not rely on scientific references. Instead I will speculate on topics related to consumer behavior. Plus I will include more historical facts and sociological theories.

social sciences

Why don’t people help each other anymore?

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.