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    Posted October 29, 2009 by
    San Francisco, California

    The Richmond Gang Rape and Preventing the Bystander Effect


    It is a story we are all aware of by now: a 15 year-old girl brutally raped and beaten over this past weekend outside of a high school dance at Richmond High. Shocked and horrified, many are left wondering how such an event could even happen?


    After reading "Gang rape raises questions about bystanders' role" on CNN.com, I switched from asking myself how something like this could happen to what would I do if I was ever in harms way and surrounded by a crowd?


    It is easy to assume that an incident such as this going unreported is rare. Generally speaking, people often feel safer walking on a street filled with people rather than a street where you may only see a person or two or even no one at all. But psychology appears to point the finger in the other direction.


    The above-mentioned article discusses that onlookers of this Richmond crime may have not acted due to a social phenomenon known as the bystander effect.


    About.com defines the bystander effect as a, "phenomenon in which the greater the number of people present, the less likely people are to help a person in distress." In this phenomenon there is "a diffusion of responsibility," in which those present simply believe that someone else will act to help and in result, no one does anything.  There is also a "need to behave in correct and socially acceptable ways." When those in the crowd see others in the crowd not reacting, it becomes the social norm in that situation, and thus, not acting to help is deemed acceptable.


    The CNN.com article also noted Jack McDevitt, a Northeastern University criminologist, as believing that bystanders may have also not acted out of fear of retaliation. This could especially be true in a community such as Richmond with it's high rate of violence.


    The gang rape in Richmond in turn shifts from being the result of a rare social fluke to psychology 101. I recall once walking in San Francisco and seeing a new luxury SUV parallel parked on a busy street, stripped and smoldering from fire as police lights lit up the area. I wondered who would have the guts to strip a car in the middle of San Francisco? Yet now I am beginning to believe those involved had less to worry about on a busy street than on a vacant country road or dark alley.


    What then, if anything, can one do if ever help is needed and all look on and do not act?


    Psychologists John Darley and Bibb Lantane did research in 1968 that brought light to the bystander effect in response to the murder of Kitty Genovese, where onlookers did not act as they watched her be stabbed to death. As a result of their experiments, Darley and Lantane developed a five-stage model to prevent the bystander effect. I found the steps detailed on becblair.blogspot.com, including the obstacles that a victim must overcome between each step.


    The first step is for those witnessing the event to realize that something is happening. To proceed closer to getting help, the victim must overcome any ambiguity to prove there is something wrong, establish they do not have a friendly relationship with the attacker (something like a couple quarreling, for example, may easily be dismissed), and overcome "pluralistic ignorance" (meaning no one seems to be worried).


    Now the victim can move on to the second step where they must establish the situation as an emergency. In moving to step three, they must overcome "diffusion of responsibility," in which passers-by assume someone else has already called for help.


    Third, onlookers must decide to take responsibility for getting help. However, they may fear they are ill-equipped to handle the situation and lack competence.


    Before the fifth step of providing help, the onlooker must decide how to help. They will have to overcome "audience inhibition," or fear of looking foolish and weigh the costs and rewards. The bystander may fear something like a law suit by the victim. The victim and bystander must overcome all obstacles to move through all five steps so that the victim gets help.


    So if you unfortunately ever find yourself in such a terrifying situation, keep this in mind: make the situation known, make it clear that you are in trouble, identify specific people in the crowd to help you, and give those you identify specific information on how to help.


    We may never know for sure what measures the 15 year-old Richmond girl took or if any of this would have worked. Regardless, it now seems apparent to me that safety in numbers is not always the case, but if you ever find yourself in dire straights someday, perhaps yelling something as simple as, "You! In the green shirt! Call 911! I need help!" may save your life.

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