Sheri Bauman
Apr 27, 2015 · 4 min read
Kitty Genovese

Why Don’t Witnesses Intervene?
By Sheri Bauman

The alleged gang rape last month in broad daylight on a Florida beach packed with college students on spring break is shocking enough, but the news that someone videotaped the encounter for salacious purposes rather than assisting the victim, and that many others simply watched without trying to stop the crime, is truly horrifying.

This case is reminiscent of the well-known case of Kitty Genovese who was stabbed to death in New York in 1964 in the presence of bystanders who did not intervene. This case gave rise to the theory of a bystander effect, which proposes that the more witnesses who observe an event, the less likely any one of them is to take action. They may believe that someone else has called for help, for example.

The theory also suggests that in a group, people take cues about how to behave from others who are present, and if they are not stepping up, it is less likely that an individual will do so.

Is that what happened in the Florida case? Does the bystander effect excuse their behavior?

It is time for Americans to morally re-engage. Inaction in the face of another’s mistreatment gives tacit approval to the offender, and thus encourages such behavior. Offenders see they need not fear being stopped or apprehended.

If one is in a group, the moral thing to do would be to help, regardless of the behavior of others. Helping might involve calling authorities, for example, if one felt immediate intervention was dangerous. Better that the police receive multiple calls than that they receive none.

In contrast to the witnesses who ignored the assault, on March 24, 2015 at 3:30 AM, a homeless man in Washington, DC heard screams and observed what he at first thought was a robbery in progress. He then realized that what he saw was an attempted rape, and he attacked the perpetrator with a stick so the woman was able to get away. The police found the alleged rapist later that morning.

The man, Ketrell Ferguson, said he intervened because he had family members who had been raped and believed he had to get involved.
It seems he knew the harm that comes to victims, so he intervened on behalf of a stranger because it was the right thing to do.

What kept the many witnesses in other cases from doing the same?

There are many reasons bystanders do not intervene when someone is being attacked or bullied. The bystander effect is one, but there are others.

In my careers as a counselor and psychologist, these issues sometimes came up. Some witnesses believe that they are not responsible for others’ welfare, and thus feel no impulse to act on behalf of another. Other observers may fear that intervening will exacerbate the situation.

Often, witnesses feel unsafe, and fear that the perpetrator will turn on them if they try to stop the harmdoing. Others who see a violent event are paralyzed with fear and shock. And many are not sure what to do — step between the parties, call police, verbally confront the aggressor — so do nothing. But they know what they are seeing is wrong.

The lack of action in Florida and New York demonstrates that humans sometimes behave in ways that are contrary to their personal moral codes. How can that be?

Albert Bandura, a famous psychologist at Stanford University, described a thought process that explains how we persuade ourselves to turn off our moral compasses — moral disengagement — and described several cognitive strategies we use to do this:

1. Thinking of the behavior as serving a higher goal (e.g., killing in a war)
2. Using language that makes the act seem less serious (referring to torture as “enhanced interrogation,” or saying, “I was only joking” when maliciously teasing someone
3. Making advantageous comparisons, telling ourselves, “It not as bad as what some people do.”
4. Minimizing one’s responsibility by referring to the group (“No one else did anything about it, either”) or expecting someone else to do it (“the police should have been there”);
5. Distorting the negative consequences (“it’s not a big deal,” or “It’s not as though she was a virgin”);
6. Dehumanizing the victim (such as was done in the Holocaust, slavery, and recently by linking President Obama and his family with apes.)

To be sure, there are many examples like Mr. Ferguson, who intervened on behalf of an unknown victim. There are also many stories of people who assisted Jews and slaves and other targeted persons, at great personal risk. But situations like the recent alleged rape are all too common.

We must recognize when we are using these mechanisms to rationalize behavior that we know is wrong, and have the moral courage to act in accordance with our personal moral codes. We must do the right thing.

Sheri Bauman, Ph.D., is a professor of Counseling at the University of Arizona and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.

Sheri Bauman

Written by

Sheri Bauman, Ph.D. is a Professor and Director of the Counseling program at the University of Arizona.

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