When I was studying psychology at university some years ago, the case of Kitty Genovese was highlighted in our social psychology classes as an incident reflecting the ?bystander effect?. Kitty Genovese was 28 years old when she was stabbed to death in New York in the street outside her apartment building.
New York didn’t have a great reputation at the time, so the murder wasn’t that remarkable. What caused the issue was that the New York Times subsequently published an article claiming that 38 witnesses had seen or heard something, but nobody had intervened or called the police. The exact circumstances of witnesses was later questioned.
I used the example when I was lecturing at the same university a few years later together with Milgrams’s experiment on following instructions of people in authority to show some of the darker sides of social psychology and people. The concept of the bystander effect has been quite lasting in psychological theory up to the present time.
In a recent publication in American Psychologist a group of authors led by Dr Richard Philpot of Lanchaster University looked at CCTV incidents to see the extent of intervention from bystanders that could happen in cases of violence. I initially viewed one of the researchers, Marie Rosenkrantz Lindegaard, speaking on Sky News, and subsequently came across reports in the media.
For me, it’s a fascinating use of CCTV for social research, something that can be constructive for society, and ultimately a good news story that overturns some of the negative feelings that often dominate society. It is also a way of looking at CCTV as a positive contributor to social cohesion and community that is often lacking. I was so excited at this novel use of CCTV and interested in the content, that I immediately went online to purchase the original publication. The fact that Cape Town was involved as well was an additional motivator given that I have done surveillance training there and seen some examples of the incidents that occur and the involvement of bystanders first hand.
Intervention is consistent
The team of researchers from the University of Copenhagen, the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement and Lancaster University examined unique video recordings of 219 arguments and assaults in inner cities of Amsterdam (Netherlands), Lancaster (UK) and Cape Town (South-Africa) – see https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/news/bystanders-will-intervene-to-help-victims-of-aggressive-public-disputes for a good overview of the findings. The authors note the cross national context of the study is an important feature, and interestingly enough that the chance of bystander intervention is consistent across all the cities covered.
My congratulations to Cape Town for getting involved in this research which has shown a positive side of the city whose reputation has been under pressure for some time. Granted that the authors note that the focus on the city centre excluded some of the most violent gang related crime areas, the positive association with other cities such as Amsterdam and Lancaster in the UK is a positive achievement.
The authors noted that in 90% of cases, there was some kind of bystander involvement. Sometimes with several people intervening. This is a surprisingly high level and a positive feature.
Avoid isolation in design
In South Africa we may be suspicious that the person who wants to help to doing so because they are sizing you up as a target, but there is obviously still a huge amount of good intent to assist other people as part of the community in South Africa. This support is something that I and my family have experienced although not always due to an incident of violence. The authors also note that higher numbers of bystanders lead to a greater chance of somebody intervening. Not necessarily because of a confidence of support, but there is a greater chance of one of the people being willing to assist. However, it is likely that feelings of mutual support would give rise to some confidence.
These dynamics have a number of implications. They show the importance of environmental design to facilitate areas of common usage and to allow communities to interact and have a presence of people in an area. The more isolation, the less likely there is to be someone to support.
It also has an implication for how community consciousness should be supported and encouraged, particularly in current times where political threats of violence undermine important foundations of commonality and shared experiences. Events such as the rugby or soccer world cups produced an outpouring of community solidarity and sense of purpose that has been severely eroded by the country’s leadership in the last eight years. The authors also note that from a psychological point of view, it gives people a sense that there are others around who can help. At a psychological level this is important.
Constructive participation in society
In their conclusion, the authors note that there needs to be a change of focus away from an absence of help towards “a new understanding of what makes intervention successful or unsuccessful”. How do we best encourage social support and intervention?
This is especially relevant when often the official police approach is to advise people to avoid getting involved, particularly when the likelihood of a quick police response is ambiguous at best. We need more recognition and reward for constructive participation in society. The recent example of a petrol attendant helping out a motorist who had no money and then getting a huge community response and funding is a nice example of this.
One of the three UK men who intervened in subduing a bloody knife wielding man in Sydney on the 13 August using a chair from a local café commented on Sky News that “we are just a normal bunch of normal working class lads”, and “we have all been raised to give help”. These are sentiments that happen at the very basis of society and form the basis of our actions.