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Don’t Fall for This Psych Trap in an Emergency Situation

by Alex McGee

On March 27th, 1964, Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was gruesomely assaulted by a man wielding a knife outside her apartment complex. The assault lasted over half an hour. But perhaps the most disturbing part of the infamous murder? The attack happened in front as many as 37 witnesses – described as respectable and law-abiding citizens. Yet despite Kitty’s cries for help, not one person intervened. One witness eventually called the police after the assault. But by then it was too late. How could this happen? This incident popularized the psychological phenomenon known as the “Bystander Effect.” There are two driving forces behind the bystander effect. Here’s how to conquer them:

Pluralistic Ignorance

This is the idea that a group of people often fail to recognize a real emergency situation. When we find ourselves in ambiguous situations, we tend to look to other people for social cues on how to react. If the people around us aren’t recognizing an emergency happening, we are less likely to recognize it ourselves.

Imagine seeing a man sitting, slumped over on a busy sidewalk. Odds are, if everyone else on the sidewalk is ignoring the situation, you will take that social cue and assume everything is fine. The only way to conquer pluralistic ignorance is to remain vigilant and to be bold. Realize that ambiguous situations can be deceptively dangerous, and address them head-on.

If you find yourself becoming a victim of the bystander effect (perhaps YOU are the one being ignored on a busy sidewalk), you must draw attention to yourself to break the social consensus that everything is fine. You must also conquer the second driving force of the Bystander Effect.

Diffused Responsibility

Generally, the more bystanders witnessing an emergency situation, the less responsibility each person feels. This makes sense, right? If you’re the only person around, you take 100% of the responsibility for the situation, but if there are 10 people present, you may only feel 10%. This can lead to a huge problem, where all the witnesses assume that someone else has called for help when no one has. Another assumption can be that someone else in the group is more qualified to handle the situation. In these cases of diffused responsibility, nothing may get done at all.

So how do you conquer diffused responsibility? Again, you must remain vigilant. If you notice an emergency situation, you must be aware that your first instinct – along with the rest of the bystanders – is to accept minimum responsibility. By taking 100% of the responsibility for the situation, you can ensure a proper response is met – whether it be calling for help, administering first aid, or mediating a conflict.

And if you are the victim? Perhaps you’ve drawn attention to the fact that you are in need of help. But if you’re pleading to a whole crowd and not getting any, it may be because everyone assumes someone else will step in. Self-defense instructors advise that you pick out a single person from the crowd. Look them in the eyes, and tell that person you need help. Put 100% of the responsibility on them to help you.

By being aware of our shortcomings – even when they seem to be psychologically wired into our brains – we can be better prepared to respond in an emergency. Stay vigilant.

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