- Posted December 5, 2013 by
Global Perspective of the Bystander Effect
The world’s response to Typhoon Haiyan has poked holes in a psychological certainty. The global community has joined forces to bring aid to the victims, yet we’ve known since the 1960s that it is more than just easy to ignore the suffering of a fellow human being. It is, in fact, a hard-wired human response.
When Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York City in front of hundreds of bystanders who turned a deaf ear to her screams, it led psychologists down numerous roads of investigation. They were hoping to discover why exactly it is that we can hear another person’s anguish and decide to do nothing about it. Their conclusion? The more we think that someone else will take responsibility for saving a life or a livelihood, the less likely we are to help. If we can convince ourselves that there’s someone else nearby who is dealing with it or would be better for the job, we have no trouble making the decision to simply walk away.
It’s one of the easiest psychological principles to replicate in an experimental setting: when it comes to a fellow human being in need, we’d really rather not have to help. But in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, it has become a little more difficult to claim that our species is cold-hearted. Millions of people were harmed or displaced by storm, but an equal number have rallied to provide aid. Organizations, both charitable and otherwise, have sent out the cry and seen it answered by the entire global community.
Money and help is pouring in and relief efforts have done their utmost to reach the scene of the disaster. Can we really claim to have self-centered hearts when we are pouring them out so expansively in this particular time of need?
We’ve seen it happen before and we will no doubt see it happen again. When Mother Nature launches an attack from her arsenal of hurricanes, tsunamis and tornadoes, the global community always tightens its bonds. It’s a surprising anomaly: we’ll happily ignore an individual under attack right before our eyes, but we will go to extraordinary lengths to help an unfamiliar community that lives half a world away.
Why is it so difficult to ignore global suffering? Why is it that we can close our eyes to bloodshed a few yards away but we cannot bring ourselves to neglect unfamiliar faces on the other side of the planet? We help partly because the media gives us guidance as to what matters most and the kind of response that is appropriate, and partly because we see others doing the same. But mostly, we help because we can identify with the victims when their plight is put before us.
We see mothers struggling to shelter their children and brothers rescuing sisters from the wreckage and we imagine our own loved ones in that situation. We are capable of turning the faceless into the acutely personal, creating imagined relationships with complete strangers. The father scrabbling in the dirt for food could be our father, and that makes us yearn to feed him.
It’s a beautiful thing to watch billions of individuals draw together as a single global community and reach out their hands to help. The support networks that spring up when disaster strikes are often as much the focus of media reporting as the disaster itself, because it’s hard not to draw courage from such a spectacle.
But there is also a reason that we are so badly in need of the hope it inspires. As individuals of developed nations, we all too rarely feel able to call out for help when we are cold, hungry or hurting. Deep down, we do not believe that help would ever come.
Western society is notorious for its focus on the self, instead of the collective good. Typhoon Haiyan teaches a valuable lesson about the importance of global community and the sheer power that is harnessed when we decide to combine our efforts. The world’s response will bring relief to the typhoon’s victims and will hopefully save many lives. If we can sidestep our hard-wired apathy and apply this desire to help to everyday situations, perhaps we can create real community in a world where individualism is leaving us all out in the cold.
About the Author:
Milan Ljubincic is a psychologist and internationally featured writer in the field of universal consciousness and humanitarian issues. Learn more about his work by visiting Ljubincic.com