Why do you think people tend to rather watch than help? You know, in all those situations where help is actually needed. Like when a person gets attacked. Or when there is an accident.
It’s not a secret that most people would rather watch, maybe even take a picture or record the incident with their smart phone than actually do something about it. They would rather stare than get involved. Have you ever heard of the bystander effect?
“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. Each person uses others’ behavior as clues to reality. Since everyone is doing exactly the same thing (nothing), they all conclude from the inaction of others that help is not needed. This is an example of pluralistic ignorance or social proof.
The other major obstacle to intervention is known as diffusion of responsibility. This occurs when observers all assume that someone else is going to intervene and so each individual feels less responsible and refrains from doing anything.”
So we tend to relate on others instead of taking it into our own hands. But what if we actually end up needing the help of others? Every thought of that?
Here’s the thing: In theory we all know that we should help a person in need and in said theory most probably all of us will say that of course we would help a person in need. But reality unfortunately looks much different. In reality people simply stand and watch victims of car accidents suffer rather than trying to help. In reality people watch girls get raped knowing what’s going on. In reality people watch others getting attacked, robbed, beaten, murdered. In reality most people don’t get involved but rather walk away.
The author of the post I read today that triggered my post asked if kindness is conditional. Maybe it is. Maybe we are more likely to help an animal in need than a person in need. I hope though that it’s not. That no conditions are attached. I doubt that we simply don’t care. But there are so many other layers to consider.
- Like our fear to get hurt as well
- Like our fear of getting in trouble for helping
- Like our fear of standing out
- Like our fear of doing something wrong
While sometimes it can actually be as simple as not realizing what really goes on and therefor not getting involved (we all know the excuse: I thought they were a couple and playing around…), in other moments it’s simply fear.
Many summers ago I actually studied a little bit of psychology combined with law. While it was extremely interesting it was also pretty eye-opening. Here’s the thing: You can get in massive trouble for not helping (at least in Switzerland) because there is a law that you actually have to help. But at the same time you can also get in trouble for not doing the right thing. As a friend of a friend of mine experienced after helping a guy who had a really bad mountain bike accident. Although he saved this guys life, he almost ended up in prison. Why? Because he had to move him in order to give him mouth-to-mouth. And in doing so the spine injury might have gotten worse. While he was lucky that he could prove that the guy would have not survived otherwise and that the spine injury was already bad enough before he moved him, this taught him a brutal lesson: Think at least twice before you jump in and help! Think what the impact on you could be. Instead of still being the person to jump in and help out, he now thinks twice. He learned that the chance to get in trouble for only doing what you consider the right thing might get you in trouble.
Now there is two incidents I experienced.
Again many summers ago, still back in Switzerland I was called to an emergency at an event I worked for. I was the only one with a valid first aid course in my pocket. Given the nature of the event I figured it would be a twisted ankle or worst case a broken nose. But when I arrived at the scene I was told that the guy had already turned blue… Turned out it was a 70-something year old gentleman who had suffered a heart attack. I immediately sent the person who got me back to call an ambulance and was relieved to see the victims wife already there giving him mouth-to-mouth and some sort of a heart massage… Aware of the impact my involvement in this first aid could have if things would go wrong I simply started supporting the wife in telling her what she had to do and how until the ambulance arrived. I was later told that it was the smartest thing to do. He didn’t make it but the wife came back the next day with flowers for me. I never really understood why she would get me flowers but she felt that I helped her heaps in this very difficult moment.
In this case there are many reasons I’m glad I did not really get involved. I’m not sure how I could have handled the fact that a person died while I was trying to keep him alive. I was kind of glad that nobody will ever be able to say that I did not do enough or that it was my fault he died because I did something wrong. On the other hand I was glad that I could at least do a little bit just by being there and keeping calm. By talking to the wife and telling her that she is doing a great job, by understanding the paramedics signs when he realized that it was all too late and simply hugging the wife while the paramedic kept trying for a little bit longer.
I guess this incident will in a weird way always stay in my mind as a good experience. Although the gentleman passed away. If you would put me back into this situation I would do it all over again and yet what if I actually had to do the first aid on him? Would I do it? I can’t answer you this question for sure… You know why? Because I fear I would not be able to help him. I fear that I might do something wrong. And I fear that this might get me in trouble.
With the second incident I experienced I have different feelings.
It was a public holiday here in Australia. People were home barbecue-ing and as always drinking… you know, it’s a thing here… It must have been early afternoon and I was on my way to the off-leash park with grandma, her dog, our two dogs, my little girl in the pram and my little boy walking next to me. We were close to the park when I noticed the couple. She was calling for help and he was grabbing her really hard. He was drunk and aggressive. She started shouting out for help louder and louder. I also noticed all the people in the surrounding buildings on their balconies just watching. Guys with their beers in their hands… She was very clearly in trouble and she kept shouting “leave me alone, let me go! You are hurting me! Let me go!” and “Help!” She kept calling out for help over and over.
The only people on the road were we and an older guy with his two little dogs. I had already changed side of the road. It’s something you learn in self defense, bring as much space between you and other people if you feel uncomfortable. I looked up, hoping that one of the guys on the balcony will call out to the guy down there telling him to let her go. But nothing. So I took my phone out and dialed 000 (our 911) and when I was on the phone with someone I called out and said “I’m on the phone with the police right now, let her go!”
I said it again. And then the other guy with his two dogs, who apparently had done the same (just a bit smarter as he had called the local police station) called out to the guy and told him that he is talking to the police at that moment.
I’m still really happy that the maniac did not hear me. Because the moment her heard the other guy he let go of the woman and started chasing after the man, screaming that he would teach him a lesson to get involved and kill his f****ing dogs. He almost got him… but then suddenly stopped and ran away. I was watching, my heart beating like crazy. The man was still on the phone with the police and the woman who was in trouble before then asked him if she could quickly talk to them. She knew where the guy was heading. He was heading back to where she lived and where her son was at this moment. Turns out it was one of the nice domestic violence cases and a restraining order had been issued against the guy… After a very quick thank you to the man and also to me she ran off. Not sure what then happened to her…
But: In that very moment, when she ran off, I realized how lucky I was. I was standing there, with my little girl in the pram, two dogs on the leash and my boy holding my hand. He was very upset. I realized that there would have been no way for me to get away from the maniac if he would have turned on me. I have no idea what he would have done to me or my kids. Or the dogs, or grandma. But I know it would not have been nice. Although I’m sort of proud of the fact that I tried to help, I doubt I would do it again in a similar situation. And I tell you why: I don’t want my children to get hurt just because I step up for someone else. I don’t want them to witness me getting hurt either.
I agree, I made them proud and I most probably set a good example but I would not do it again. Not if I have the kids with me. It still makes me shiver thinking back. And when I think about getting into the same situation again there’s one feeling that is stronger than the urge to help: Fear! Fear for my kids lives!
And now I wonder: Does it make me as bad as all those guys on their balconies? Boy, they made me super angry! They had nothing to fear! There was no way he could have gotten to them at this point. At first I thought they were all selfish a**holes. But then I thought about it again and it brought me back to an incident in our parking garage of the building we lived in and an encounter with a guy who had parked on our parking and who got really aggressive when I told him nicely to move his car. He was really aggressive and frankly I was happy that we moved shortly after this. I knew he knew which apartment we lived in because it was written on our parking space in huge numbers…
Now: There are some sick people out there. People who hurt people and don’t care. So they would not care hurting even more people. And maybe that was what all those guys on the balcony thought: What if he comes back and waits for me? A scary thought, right?
Coming back to the question if kindness is conditional: Maybe it is. Maybe our conditions to be kind is the one to stay safe ourselves. Maybe our condition is to not get ourselves and our loved ones in trouble. Selfish of course but then also a very natural instinct, right?
This is only one clip I share with you here. There are tons of bystander effect experiment clips out there for all sort of things, heart attack, fainting, abduction, rape, domestic violence, child abuse, bullying, you name it. What they all have in common is the huge amount of people just walking past and not helping out…
My head’s spinning right now. Heaps of thoughts chasing each other. All leading to that one question: Would I help? Unconditionally? Honestly, I can’t answer it. I know that I’m a person who wants to help. But how much would I actually risk for someone I might never see again in my life? For someone who might not even survive? For someone who might get me killed?
Killed not because they were involved with the wrong kind of people. But what about an accident? I will simply throw some words at you: Life guards and the ocean, fire fighters, police officers, avalanches and ski patrol, helicopter pilots, paramedics. They know about the sacrifice they might have to make. There are heroes out there who put their health and lives at risk on a daily base in order to help others. Frankly, I have my deepest respect for all of them.
Back to us “normal people”. Think about it: If there’s an accident and people are injured then there’s most likely a lot of blood. You might be super prepared for everything and maybe you always carry latex gloves in your handbag or pocket (hhmmm… if so, that might lead to all kind of other questions…). I have some in my car but I for sure don’t carry them around with me. So what if I walk up to an accident and there’s a lot of blood involved? It’s not the moment you can ask someone if they have some kind of disease you could catch while helping them, right? You put yourself at risk when you help.
Kindness is a fantastic thing. Helping is a fantastic thing. But I believe that you always put yourself at risk in a way or another. And you definitely need to be prepared to do that. I think that’s a huge thing to consider and to be honest: How can you be mad at someone who simply just doesn’t have the guts to put life and health or general well-being at risk? How can you judge someone who might just as well not think of himself or herself first but of the family he or she has (has to support)? How can you judge someone who does not want to make such sacrifices?
In a perfect world we would all look out for each other. We would help and be kind. Unfortunately we don’t live in such a perfect world. There’s just too much going wrong.
So, I like to ask all of you: How far would you go for a stranger? What would you do? Would you help?