Saturday, November 12, 2011

Bystander Psychology

Recent events at Penn State have no doubt been troubling.Time has an interesting article on bystander pschyology (subtitled: why some witnesses of crime do nothing). For those not in the know: the current wide-receiver's coach and a janitor saw Jerry Sandusky (an extraordinarily celebrated coach at Penn State) in compromising situations over a decade ago, but never called the police. From the article:
(We) would like to believe that no matter how small or scared we were, if we saw a child being raped, we'd step in and stop it, or at the very least call 911 immediately. But social psychology research on "bystander" behavior suggests that many of us might actually turn away.

The most famous instance of witness apathy involves the 1964 murder of 28-year-old Kitty Genovese in New York City. News accounts — and later, social psychology texts — said the victim and her screams were ignored by 38 witnesses as she was stabbed to death on a Queens street. (Genovese's killer was denied parole this week.)

But while research has shown that many such witnesses do fail to intervene, in part because they assume others around them will do so, it turns out that the popular account of the Genovese case is largely urban legend. There were not in fact 38 witnesses, but many fewer, and most onlookers said they did not see or hear the full assault; many of the witnesses did call police.

Still, says Mark Levine, a social psychologist at Lancaster University in the U.K., the Genovese story is a "very powerful parable. It taps into something people feel about human psychology, probably mistakenly: that somehow, when we're with other people, we lose our rational capacity or personal identity, which controls our behavior."

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