No one wants to be labeled selfish or apathetic

We know we must help one another, but how?

Bystander 311 (photo credit: MCT)
Bystander 311
(photo credit: MCT)
“A man is called selfish not for pursuing his own good but for neglecting his neighbor’s.”

– Richard Whately
It was 1964 in Queens, and it seemed like a run-of-the-mill homicide. Yet after investigation of the details, it left the police commissioner and a New York Times reporter aghast. Catherine Genovese was killed in a late night attack on her home street.
Her death had been a long, loud, tortured, public event. Her assailant had chased and attacked her in the street three times over a period of 45 minutes. Incredibly, 38 of her neighbors watched the events of her death unfold from the safety of their apartment windows without even calling the police.
When it was publicized that 38 seemingly good citizens failed to call for help, people were bewildered and began searching for explanations. Most frequently heard was that city life hardens people and makes them indifferent and apathetic to the pain and suffering of others.
As the story grew, it caught the attention of psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley.
They came up with an alternative explanation.
Previous accounts had emphasized that no action was taken, even though 38 individuals had looked on. Latane and Darley suggested that no one helped precisely because there were so many observers.
They speculated that a bystander to an emergency would be unlikely to help when there were a large number of other bystanders present.
Since several other potential helpers are around, the personal responsibility of each individual is reduced. Running through people’s minds is the thought that “perhaps someone else will give a call for aid.”
Another significant reason involves the concept of “pluralistic ignorance.” In times of uncertainty, the natural tendency is to look at the actions of others for clues. Most people would follow a crowd running away from smoke or a loud noise because when you are not sure of the circumstances, you are likely to take your cues about whether something is an emergency from reactions of others. That is “pluralistic ignorance.” If we don’t know for sure, we take cues from the crowd.
The upshot is that the idea of safety in numbers may be completely wrong. In truth, someone in need of emergency aid would have a better chance of survival if a single person was present.
Our style of life in city settings has many factors that keep people from helping others. In contrast to smaller rural areas, it is challenging in a city to be sure of what is happening. Most scenes are hectic and change rapidly. You are much more likely to witness events that involve strangers where there are large numbers of people.
The lack of certainty, the large number of people and the likelihood that we do not know anyone personally all contribute to our lack of action and an appearance of apathy.
Does this mean we are callous, self-centered individuals? Psychologists consider the tendency to help those close to us a function of “proximal identification.”
This is indicated by the fact that even the trivial injury of our own child hurts us more than the major injury to the child of a friend. It also influences us on an ethnic level, as it is likely that a natural disaster in Japan that killed 100 people will touch Japanese Americans who have never been to Japan more than the deaths of thousands in India.
Some psychologists claim that proximal identification was a necessary survival trait. It starts with the human infant who, for an unprecedented extended period, requires care and nurturing to survive. Without our focused personal care and protection long into childhood, children would not survive. In some ways, it is an extension of our protective instincts for our own life.
This same identification with survival characteristics has similarly influenced our relations with extended family and neighbors. For thousands of years we lived in small social units in which we felt and needed a shared personal sense of survival and destiny with those who lived near us.
In today’s global more depersonalized lifestyle, we travel extensively and are in contact with hundreds more people, but our relationships are often not as close and/or personal.
Even nuclear family members may sometimes live at distances of hundreds and thousands of miles from their loved ones. So when a crisis happens to us in public, we are unlikely to have people who know us personally nearby.
Therefore, we should remember that it is our effort to identify an individual in a personal way that will help us most. Look directly at and speak to one individual and tell him what you need – “You, sir, in the blue shirt, I need help. Please call an ambulance.” That says clearly what you need and personalizes the responsibility.
But what can we do to reach out to others? During the course of our daily lives, we see and interact with many people we do not know personally. These are people we don’t notice because they are not within our social circles and because we are rushing through our day. It takes conscious effort to pull us out of our routine and habits, to see them and to notice that they may need help. Since routines are hard to break, it is a good idea to try to include a new habit like a random act of kindness on a daily or at least weekly basis. If you put it into your schedule, you are more likely to reach out and help and continue the important cycle of us helping one another.
“If I am only for myself, what am I?” – Ethics of the Fathers.
Dr. Mann is a positive clinical psychologist who helps clients in his Jerusalem office and gives workshops on positive psychology to businesses and organizations.