A few months ago, I was exiting off the M3 and passed two dogs running toward the highway. I considered pulling over and trying to stop them, but I had my own dogs with me and couldn’t think quickly enough what to do without risking my own safety or theirs. Not having a phone number for a rescue organisation at hand, I felt I had no choice but to keep driving, hoping someone else would see the dogs and help them. A day later, I saw on Facebook that a beloved dog had been hit by a car at the entrance to the M3. It looked very much like one of the two dogs I had seen. As you can tell, I am still thinking about that dog, carrying guilt about whether I could have done more.
We can all relate: times when we’ve seen someone harassed and didn’t intervene; when we’ve driven past a car stranded on the road, hoping another driver would pull over; even leaving litter for someone else to pick up. We have all witnessed a problem, considered some kind of positive action, and chosen to do nothing instead. This is called the bystander effect, or bystander apathy, a social-psychological phenomenon where individuals are less likely to offer help when other people are present. In fact, the more bystanders there are, the less likely it is that one of them will help!
Charles Garfield, a professor of psychology explains that, “the bystander is a modern archetype, from the Holocaust to the genocide in Rwanda to the current environmental crisis.” Researchers have spent decades trying to understand bystanders. Often, only subtle differences separate bystanders from those who are morally courageous. Most of us have the potential to be either, as only slight, seemingly insignificant details can push us one way or the other.
Research shows that most often, bystanders don’t intervene because they’re misled by the reactions of the people around them who act as if everything is okay. Lateness and the presence of other people are some of the other factors that can turn us all into bystanders. We are in a hurry. Surely someone else will help? Sadly, the characteristics of the victim can also impact our response. Research has shown that people are more likely to help those they perceive to be similar to them, including others from their own racial or ethnic groups.
Jewish tradition teaches that even Moses was susceptible to bystander apathy. In my Daf Yomi studies, I recently read a text from Brachot 32a where Rabbi Elazar teaches that after the sin of the Golden Calf, God sent Moses away from Mt Sinai, claiming to no longer need an emissary to the People. The text tells us that, “immediately, Moses’ strength waned and he was powerless to speak (in defense of Israel).” However, once God said to Moses: “Leave Me be, that I may destroy them” (Deut. 9:14), Moses realised: “If God is telling me (this) it must be because it is dependent upon me (to act).” Immediately Moses stood, was strengthened in prayer, and asked God for mercy.
The G’mara then relates the tale of a king who became angry at his son and beat him severely. A friend of the king was present but feared to say anything to the king about the excessive beating. Meanwhile, the king said to his son, “Were it not for this friend here, I would have killed you.” When the friend heard this he realised, “It is dependent upon me,” and immediately he stood and rescued him.
Altruism does exist. We all know active bystanders, people who witness a problem, recognise it as such, and take it upon themselves to do something. Maybe we’ve even been the ones to step up when needed. It is important to know that just as passive bystanders reinforce a sense that nothing is wrong in a situation, research shows that active bystanders can motivate others to take action with them.
Sociologist Samuel Oliner, a Holocaust survivor inspired by the people who helped him escape the Nazis, claims, “there is a predisposition in some people to help whenever the opportunity arises (while) a bystander is less concerned with the outside world, beyond his own immediate community (and) might be less tolerant of differences, thinking ‘Why should I get involved?…They don’t see helping as a choice. But (rescuers) feel no choice but to get involved.”
Oliner claims that social responsibility is not only doable, it’s teachable. Anti-bystander education encourages learners to avoid the traps of becoming a bystander. Even just reading and discussing this article with someone else counts! Exploring the subtle pressures that can cause bystander behaviour with someone else helps us all to be better prepared. I may not always be able to pull over safely to help stray dogs, but I now have a phone number saved that I can call. Doing something feels far better than doing nothing — just ask Moses.
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