Why Do People Watch Crime Happen?

Why Do People Watch Crime Happen?

I just received a call from a nice father of a teenage girl.  She sadly was jumped on a CTA bus by a group of thug girls.  They didn’t know her.  Apparently they just went on the bus looking for someone to mess with and she was the unlucky one.  Fortunately, other than some bruises, she seems to be ok and the attackers have been arrested.

What was maddening to the father (and to me) is that it was a crowded bus and none of the adults that were on board did anything to stop the attack.  The driver, who should have been the first to intervene, apparently did nothing other than pull the bus over to the side of the road.   The driver also either didn’t see or didn’t care that one of the attackers paid to get on the bus and then went to the back quickly to prop open the door for her friends.

According to the father that called me, the adults that were in the back of the bus just watched as his daughter was punched, kicked, had her hair pulled and as the attackers tried to take her phone.

This isn’t a new phenomenon and is known as the bystander effect.  Famed author Malcolm Gladwell has written extensively about Kitty Genovese, a New York woman who was stabbed outside of her building.  She screamed for help and many of her neighbors reported hearing her scream, but no one came to her aid.  One person did scream “let that girl alone” and the attacker left.  Kitty reportedly was bloody and staggering around.  Someone did call the police, but no one came to check on Kitty.  The attacker came back 10 minutes later, searched around, found Kitty in a hallway and stabbed her some more, raped her as she lay dying and then stole her money.  This attack was believed to have lasted for 30 minutes.

Apparently of all of the people that saw or heard this, only two realized that she was stabbed.  Others thought it was some sort of lovers quarrel.  The New York Times investigated the case and determined that 38 people witnessed the murder and did nothing.  One person said that they saw the attack, but “I didn’t want to get involved.”  There was a big public outcry, but apparently it did nothing to change behavior as 10 years later (1974) a woman was killed in the same building after a struggle that many neighbors also heard and didn’t react to.

Researches have studied the bystander effect and have concluded that the more witnesses there are to a crime, the less likely it is that one of them will do something to stop it.  It’s basis social influence in that onlookers check out what others are doing to take their cue as to whether or not to help.  And it’s not just an American problem.  Just this past fall in China, a two year old girl was hit by a car.  The driver didn’t stop.  She lay bloody in the street and supposedly people walked by her and around her without helping at all.  She lay there until another car drove by and ran her over, resulting in her death.

So what’s the solution?  My son’s school teaches the kids that if you see someone being a bully that it is your responsibility to stop it.  I know that we weren’t taught that as kids so hopefully it will have a positive effect on future generations.  But for the time being should we create a law that says if you watch a crime happen and don’t call the police or intervene then you can be charged with a crime?  That’s probably a law that would be impossible to enforce and have some unintended negative consequences.

I can’t tell you how heart broken the father that called me was about his daughter.  He was distraught that he wasn’t there to protect his child and no one else would either.  But maybe there is nothing that can be done about this.  Maybe it truly is woven in to our DNA.  I’d like to think that there are more people out there looking out for others.  I’d like to think that I would do something, but if I was with my two young sons, can I honestly say I’d interfere and potentially risk them getting hurt.  It’s easy to sit there and act all Mark Wahlberg and say that “if I was there, it never would have happened,” but the reality is that until you are in that situation you just don’t know. 

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  • I don't believe it is woven into our DNA, but since you never know whether the attackers are armed, there is some justifiable fear involved. When the fight/attack is between male and female however, there is a tendency to assume that it's a "domestic" and to let them work it out. That happened to me way back in 1986, when I was attacked by a man I didn't know, stood in the street after he had fled, with blood pouring from my nose, and the bar I had just left wouldn't even let me back in to call the police. (No cell phones then.)
    On the flip side, my 90 year old neighbor was robbed and attacked on her doorstep a few years ago. I heard her screams from inside my house. It was (deliberately created) mayhem when I got outside, and I couldn't tell what was going on. However, I did scream to my daughter to call the police and called to a few other neighbors. When the coward attackers realized the game was up that they jumped into their car and drove off. My first instinct was to run after the car to get the plate number, but my daughter sensibly reminded me that we didn't know if they had guns.
    Sometimes it only takes one person making a lot of noise to stop a potentially deadly scene. Too bad it doesn't happen more often but I, for one, am likely to step in again in the future.

  • In reply to Expat in Chicago:

    "...but since you never know whether the attackers are armed."

    I thought guns are banned in Chicago? And in New York and China where Helfand made his other examples, yes? Not to mention the U.K., right expat?

    Ahh, the U.K., where your government with the aid of unelected European Court judges have proven incapable of expelling clerics who preach violence and intolerance against your state.

    btw, Helfand, good looking out on the photo as always.

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    Very provocative post. I've read a great deal about the bystander effect. You don't really think of the day-to-day ramifications until it hits close to home, like the client who called you about his daughter. Let's hope that schools continue to promote good citizenship and backbones in this next generation.

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