Not-So-Innocent Bystander

I heard about something incredibly disturbing today. Several months ago a man was stabbed while coming to the aid of a woman being attacked by a knife-wielding assailant. He bled to death on a Queens sidewalk as almost 25 pedestrians walked by (1).

What is disturbing in this case isn’t the apparent apathy of those who didn’t make the effort to interfere on behalf of the woman being attacked. What is disturbing is that the reason they didn’t help may not be apathy at all. Instead, evidence points to social pressure bearing the responsibility: our desire to look good in front of our peers.

It’s called the bystander effect.  “A social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases where individuals do not offer help in an emergency situation when other people are present. The probability of help has in the past been thought to be inversely related to the number of bystanders; in other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help.

The bystander effect was first demonstrated in the laboratory by John Darley and Bibb Latane in 1968. These researchers launched a series of experiments that resulted in one of the strongest and most replicable effects in social psychology. In a typical experiment, the participant is either alone or among a group of other participants or confederates. An emergency situation is then staged — examples include smoke pouring from a vent in the room, a person falling and becoming injured, a student having an epileptic seizure, etc. The researchers then measure how long it takes the participants to act, and whether or not they intervene at all. These experiments virtually always find that the presence of others inhibits helping, often by a large margin. There are, in fact, many reasons why bystanders in groups fail to act in emergency situations, but social psychologists have focused most of their attention on two major factors. According to a basic principle of social influence, bystanders monitor the reactions of other people in an emergency situation to see if others think that it is necessary to intervene. Since everyone is doing exactly the same thing (nothing), they all conclude from the inaction of others that help is not needed. (2)

Can the desire to “look good” in front of others really change our behavior so drastically that it can override our conscious or even our own rational thinking? I’m reminded of something I saw a while ago on a Candid Camera type of show. A victim was set up in an elevator full of strangers, all facing the door as usual, when suddenly everyone but the victim turned around and faced the wall. I’m sure you can imagine what happened next. After a few moments of confusion, the victim turned around! Why? Nothing about that elevator changed except what everyone else around was doing. And that was enough to influence person after person to do something they would never dream of doing under normal circumstances.

I know that I have my own struggles regarding other people’s opinion of me. I want to be liked and thought well of. It’s humbling to realize how these desires could affect me, even without my knowledge. It’s humbling to understand just how susceptible I make myself when I care too much about what others think.

This morning, I was feeling discouraged because of the opinion of a friend as it was expressed to me regarding some personal decisions my husband and I have made. Tonight I am reminded that I am “playing unto God.

One of my favorite verses in scripture is Romans 14:4: “Who are you to judge another man’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”

Lord, help me to embrace my role as the “odd man out.”  Help me to be “in the world, but not of the world.”





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Playing Unto God

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