I’ll attempt to describe ‘The Bystander Effect’ in this essay. It’ll become clear shortly why I chose to write on this particular topic. I’m currently reading ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’ by Rutger Bregman. In the book, he talks about something that resonated deeply with me. Don’t get me wrong, I love the author, and many ideas he presented in his book changed my views. But, for the purpose of this essay, I shall talk about one particular idea - that of ‘The Bystander Effect’ and how I think I experienced (or not) it firsthand.

Let me tell you a story. This is a summary of what Rutger narrated in the book, but it will help make an important point - whether the effect exists or not. You should go read the book, it’s excellent. Okay, now coming back to the story - the story concerns a young woman named Catherine Susan Genovese, called Kitty by her friends.

Aged twenty-eight, she lived in New York City and loved the city. The city loved her back abundantly too. One tragic night, on her way to meet her girlfriend Mary Ann, Kitty was stabbed to death. She screamed for help, but none came to help her, by the time the police arrived, it was too late. This is what the newspapers reported anyway. As Rutger points out a little later, people actually extended help, and it is the police who failed in part.

Catherine Susan Genovese's Mug Shot. Source.

Anyway, let us go by the newspaper reports. So, why did everyone who witnessed the horrific incident decide not to help the poor girl? Well, here is where ‘The Bystander Effect’ comes into play. The theory is that they did not help because they were expecting someone else to take the lead and help the girl first. So, instead of going out to help her themselves, they waited out for someone else to take charge. This supposedly reveals the ‘everyone for themselves’ nature of Homo Sapiens. Except it is not. But, this essay is not about human nature, so I’ll skip that part. If you’re curious, then you should read the book. Trust me, it’ll change your outlook on humans.

Now, coming back to the topic of this essay. While ‘The Bystander Effect’ in theory sounds very much plausible, Marie Lindegaard, a Danish psychologist, established otherwise. According to her, people help each other out ninety percent of the time. Pause for a second and think. That means that the bystander effect works only ten percent of the time, which is not well-established. Humans are inherently good-natured, and it is in our nature to help people in need of help.

Let me tell you another story. It was December 2020. I went to Kolkata for the TOEFL iBT. I was walking toward the airport exit gates on my way to the city when a middle-aged man collapsed right in front of me and started convulsing. That scared the hell out of me. I have never been faced with such a scenario before. And remember, there is a global pandemic going on. So, naturally, I tried my best to maintain physical distance when in public. I saw that the man was struggling to breathe with the mask and everything. So, once I recovered from my confusion, I decided to help the man up. I tried once, twice, and thrice and finally managed to help him sit up. I did not know humans were this heavy. Anyway, once I went and supported, a lady and then another man extended their help.

A Man in Seizure. Source.

So, I wonder, was that The Bystander Effect in play? Was the lady a victim of the effect? Was everyone who witnessed him collapsing, including me, a victim of the same effect? Or maybe just like Kitty’s case, the witnesses at the airport behaved the way we did because the police and the system are not helpful in many cases? Frankly, I was always told to steer clear of any commotion and to definitely steer clear of the police.

In fact, quite sometime later, when the police came to the spot, they interrogated the convulsing man for his ID. As bizarre as that sounds, they went on asking him about his ID. You know what they got as an answer, that’s right - nothing. When I suggested that he must have his ID in his pocket, the policeman gave me a stern warning and that typical Indian wannabe tough cop look. So, maybe it is not human nature but rather the conditioning (or training) that we receive and the system that is at fault?

I don’t know. You tell me. What do you think?

I’m yet to finish the book. I’m pleased with the book so far. I’ll finish reading it in the next two/three days. You should read the book. Seriously, it’s excellent.

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