The Sunday Magazine

Understanding the bystander effect

Why people in crowds just watch as someone suffers or even dies right in front of them.
A man was taken to hospital without vital signs after he was found unconscious at this bus shelter at Yonge-Dundas Square. Police say he was not dressed for last night's freezing temperatures. (Tony Smyth/CBC)

If you had been in the Montreal Métro station when an inebriated man staggered into an oncoming  train, smashing his head and falling onto the platform - what would you have done? Would you have intervened? Called 911? 

The STM says workers will also install drainage ducts and perform electrical work in the tunnel between Berri-UQAM and Longueuil stations. (Radio-Canada)
If you were one of at least 40 passers-by, you would have done nothing. You might have glanced over at his body, which was inches from the edge of the station platform, and moved on. 

The man was Radil Hebrich, a 59-yr-old Algerian architect who'd come on hard times and was homeless. His body lay on the platform for sixteen minutes before any help arrived. He died hours later, with a deep cut to his head, fractured skull and fractured vertebrae.
This January, a homeless man in his fifties was found dead in a glass bus shelter at one of Toronto's busiest downtown corners. He had frozen to death.
And in Washington, DC, a 30-year-old employee at a Lululemon clothing store died when her co-worker stabbed her hundreds of times. The staff in a store next door heard the attack going on through a wall and did not call police.

These are chilling examples of what is known as the bystander effect -- a psychological term which describes why people in a crowd are less likely to react or become involved when someone is in trouble.

Michael speaks with three experts on the troubling question of why people in crowds just watch, as someone suffers or even dies right in front of them. 
Theresa Bianco wrote an op-ed piece in the Montreal Gazette, after the coroner's report on the death of Mr. Hebrich was released.  She looked at ways people could respond when faced with such a crisisProfessor Bianco teaches psychology at Concordia University.

Kristen Monroe is the author/editor of more than 16 books and 100 articles. Her latest book, A Darkling Plain: Stories of Conflict and Humanity during War", has just been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She is Chancellor's Professor at the University of California at Irvine, Director of the UCI Ethics Center and current president of the Women's Caucus for Political Science. 

Ervin Staub is Founding Director of the doctoral program in the Psychology of Peace and Violence at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.  He is the author of the award-winning book, Overcoming Evil: Genocide, Violent Conflict and Terrorism. His latest book, The Roots of Goodness and Resistance to Evil: Inclusive Caring, Moral Courage, Altruism Born of Suffering, Active Bystandership and Heroism will be published this month.


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