Bystander effect hits hard
Sheila Bryan was walking toward the Campus Center on Oct. 23 when she missed a step and plunged face first onto asphalt. The most painful part of her accident, said Bryan, was being ignored by the students who walked by without asking if she was alright.
Bryan, a student at Central Oregon Community College, has poor depth perception due to limited vision in her right eye. That morning, she was walking fast trying to get her heart rate up.
Bryan fell when she missed the asphalt curb of the track. Her glasses were damaged and her face was scratched.
Bryan said that two men “in their twenties” were nearby, but they walked past without even looking at her as she searched for her glasses. As Bryan put on her glasses, her face bleeding, she saw a young lady who looked at her and then turned away.
“What if it had been a heart attack?” said Bryan. “If I hadn’t gotten help in minutes, I would have died. …How can people walk by someone like that? I’d expect that in a big city, but I expected more here.”
Bryan walked back to her car holding her sweater over her face to staunch the blood–and the tears.
“What hit me the most–what made me cry,” said Bryan, “was that people didn’t care.”
Bryan has been at COCC since 2010 working toward her Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer degree. One of her classmates, Heather Storer, reports that the same thing happened to her last winter.
Storer was walking past the new Science Building when she slipped on a patch of ice.
Storer reports that there were three men smoking who saw her, as well as three other individuals who glanced at her and went about what they were doing.
Storer was down for “four or five minutes,” and she had to pull herself back up due to a back injury. When Storer discovered several months later that Bryan had undergone a similar event, Storer said she felt “disgust.”
Andria Woodell, professor of Behavioral Psychology at COCC, doesn’t believe students acted out of callousness; she believes they don’t know what to do.
“Sometimes people are frozen; they don’t know what step to take,” said Woodell.
The study of this phenomenon is called “diffusion of responsibility,” and it began after the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964, according to Woodell. Kitty Genovese, who was murdered in a New York neighborhood, was seen by 38 individuals who didn’t call the police.
“It’s called the ‘bystander effect,’” said Woodell. “The more people who are present, the less chance one is going to help. People are more likely to mobilize if there are less people. Everybody assumes others know how to react.”
Victims of accidents to challenge bystanders to move by making eye contact and giving commands, said Woodell.
“‘I just injured myself; can you call campus security?’” said Woodell in example.
Though the “bystander effect” is the status quo, Woodell said that there is one factor that can overcome it.
“If you can get one person–one hero,” said Woodell, “to react, that ‘breaks the spell’ on bystanders and others come to help.”
Woodell calls this the “heroic imagination.” This is what causes people to act when no one else is, according to Woodell.
“The question is,” said Woodell, “how do we get more people to act like this as opposed to conforming to the rule?”