Bystander apathy

My last bias comes, not from the field of heuristics and biases, but from the field of social psychology. A now-famous series of experiments by Latane and Darley (1969) uncovered the bystander effect, also known as bystander apathy, in which larger numbers of people are less likely to act in emergencies - not only individually, but collectively. 75% of subjects alone in a room, noticing smoke entering from under a door, left to report it. When three naive subjects were present, the smoke was reported only 38% of the time. A naive subject in the presence of two confederates who purposely ignored the smoke, even when the room became hazy, left to report the smoke only 10% of the time. A college student apparently having an epileptic seizure was helped 85% of the time by a single bystander and 31% of the time by five bystanders.

The bystander effect is usually explained as resulting from diffusion of responsibility and pluralistic ignorance. Being part of a group reduces individual responsibility. Everyone hopes that someone else will handle the problem instead, and this reduces the individual pressure to the point that no one does anything. Support for this hypothesis is adduced from manipulations in which subjects believe that the victim is especially dependent on them; this reduces the bystander effect or negates it entirely. Cialdini (2001) recommends that if you are ever in an emergency, you single out one single bystander, and ask that person to help - thereby overcoming the diffusion.

Pluralistic ignorance is a more subtle effect. Cialdini (2001) writes:

Very often an emergency is not obviously an emergency. Is the man lying in the alley a heart-attack victim or a drunk sleeping one off? ... In times of such uncertainty, the natural tendency is to look around at the actions of others for clues. We can learn from the way the other witnesses are reacting whether the event is or is not an emergency. What is easy to forget, though, is that everybody else observing the event is likely to be looking for social evidence, too. Because we all prefer to appear poised and unflustered among others, we are likely to search for that evidence placidly, with brief, camouflaged glances at those around us. Therefore everyone is likely to see everyone else looking unruffled and failing to act.

The bystander effect is not about individual selfishness, or insensitivity to the suffering of others. Alone subjects do usually act. Pluralistic ignorance can explain, and individual selfishness cannot explain, subjects failing to react to a room filling up with smoke. In experiments involving apparent dangers to either others or the self, subjects placed with nonreactive confederates frequently glance at the nonreactive confederates.

I am sometimes asked: "If <existential risk X> is real, why aren't more people doing something about it?" There are many possible answers, a few of which I have touched on here. People may be overconfident and over-optimistic. They may focus on overly specific scenarios for the future, to the exclusion of all others. They may not recall any past extinction events in memory. They may overestimate the predictability of the past, and hence underestimate the surprise of the future. They may not realize the difficulty of preparing for emergencies without benefit of hindsight. They may prefer philanthropic gambles with higher payoff probabilities, neglecting the value of the stakes. They may conflate positive information about the benefits of a technology as negative information about its risks. They may be contaminated by movies where the world ends up being saved. They may purchase moral satisfaction more easily by giving to other charities. Or the extremely unpleasant prospect of human extinction may spur them to seek arguments that humanity will not go extinct, without an equally frantic search for reasons why we would.

But if the question is, specifically, "Why aren't more people doing something about it?", one possible component is that people are asking that very question - darting their eyes around to see if anyone else is reacting to the emergency, meanwhile trying to appear poised and unflustered. If you want to know why others aren't responding to an emergency, before you respond yourself, you may have just answered your own question.

Continue reading here: A final caution

Was this article helpful?

0 0