Broken Brains - the terrifying things everyone is capable of doing (Part 4) cover image

Broken Brains - the terrifying things everyone is capable of doing (Part 4)

Dorian Minors • June 19, 2015

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

Imagine one of the most complicated Lego contraptions you ever built without using the instructions. Did you ever run out of the pieces you needed to finish it? Maybe substituted two little, different coloured blocks for one long one? It wasn’t perfect, but it did the job. Well that’s kind of like the human brain (we think). And sometimes, that imperfect solution may have worked for a time, but causes some serious problems now. Or maybe it was always a problem, but no one ever noticed before. Well, psychology noticed. Here’s the next in our mini-series on those problems and how to solve them.

Would you help someone who is clearly close to death? You might not. Worse still, if you're in trouble, people might not help you. In this article we talk about why people will ignore you in serious situations and how to make sure help comes when you need it. Consider these three true and awful tales of human callousness:


Also, if you're going to fact check these, DO NOT click on any videos. I am already regretting the way I went about writing this article as a result.

  1. In 1964, Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death outside her apartment in an attack lasting about half-an-hour, long enough for the murderer to leave and come back later on to continue the job. Several (at least 12) neighbours heard Kitty screaming and there were at least two witnesses to the murder, one when the murderer started and one when the murderer came back for more. Yet, there is no clear evidence that the police were contacted more than once during the attack and any effort to get the police involved was clearly not convincing enough for the police to come out and help.
  2. In 2010, Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax came to the rescue of a woman, who was being mugged. He was stabbed several times in the chest by the mugger and collapsed. He lay there for almost an hour and a half while close to 25 people walked past, some even taking photos on their phone. Responding to a 'non-life'threatening' injury report, firefighters finally attended to him, too late. He was already dead. The only 911 calls that happened around that time were three reporting a woman's screams.
  3. In 2011, two-year-old Wang-Yue gets hit by a truck, which stops and then drives on. Eighteen people walk past and do nothing as Wang-yue rolls around limply. They simply step to the side, or swerve on their bicycles to avoid her. One truck drives over her feet a little later on. By the time Wang-Yue is helped, it's too late. She dies of her injuries.

What. The. Heck.

These stories are often used to embody what's become known as 'bystander apathy' or the 'bystander effect'. The effect describes the fact that generally speaking, as the amount of people around increases, the less likely an individual is to take action in a crisis. Over 100 articles have been written on the topic since the 1960's and the finding is extremely robust.

The more bystanders there are, the less likely the individual is to help.

But why?!

You're more likely to get help in the woods, than here. You're more likely to get help in the woods, than here.

Well, the easiest explanation comes from 'diffusion of responsibility' theory. Essentially, when a group reaches a critical size (usually about 4 or more), we lose confidence to take action based on the assumption that those around us might have already. This is especially true in ambiguous situations. The more ambiguous the circumstance, the more we rely on others to have made the correct choice in solving the problem. It makes sense, but is problematic.

How do I fix it?

Well, the bystander effect is powerful, but surprisingly easy to overcome. You can beat it by doing one of two things:

  1. Take some action when people need help. If no one is doing anything, it suggests no one IS GOING to do anything. You don't need to get in and get your hands dirty, especially if you have no idea what you're doing. If the situation is a bit unclear, people are waiting for a cue that help is needed. If you become that cue, it's likely that someone who does know what they're doing will help. Even if it's just saying 'someone help this person', doing something is better than waiting.
  2. If you need help, then you'd better point. Point to someone and make eye contact and say 'help me'. By assigning responsibility, studies show that the bystander effect is nullified.

One last thing. Don't assume that just because someone is better qualified to help, that you shouldn't act. In 2008, two individuals died in the waiting room of a hospital. Esmin Green collapsed after a 24 hour wait, and despite the presence of guards and others, she was left unaided for an hour and died. Brian Sinclair waited 34 hours after speaking with the triage nurse, complaining of pain. No food or care was provided to him in that time. Eventually, they noticed that he wasn't breathing. If the bystander effect can come into play in a hospital, then the onus is really on you. And on that note, here's a video of some puppies frolicking, because damn do we need them: [embed][/embed] Be sure to check out parts one, two and three of the mini-series. Now for something more upbeat, lets talk about how learning what a 'safe haven' is could let you achieve your maximum personal growth. Or learn the hierarchy of success and how to use it, here. Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.