The Bystander Effect: Understanding the Psychology of Courage and Inaction

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The Bystander Effect: Understanding the Psychology of Courage and Inaction
Catherine Sanderson
This book is about an interesting — though controversial — psychological phenomenon: why do good, well-adjusted people who could intervene to help a person in distress, not always help?

It starts out brightly but quickly gets bogged down by its author’s agenda, and goes from the interesting question “why is it that people who could, and are disposed to, intervene, when given the opportunity to, don’t?” to the uninteresting one “why are people, and especially young white men, so horrid?” Undeniably true, is neither interesting nor capable of solution by a well-meaning social scientist. It isn’t just white males: that’s just your confirmation bias talking — yes, true — and mine.

“Assume people will be dicks, and avoid disappointment.” Granted, that’s hardly a decent hook for a bestselling book, but it might make less of an outrage.

On the other hand, it turns out there’s not much evidence that there is much of a bystander effect, in the sense of the notorious Kitty Genovese case. That horrible murder appears to have been seriously misreported. So Professor Sanderson hasn’t got much of a hook for her book anyway. Instead, she looks at situations of peer pressure and bullying.

But social pressures are different, and far easier to explain. Bullying goes back to the beginning of time, isn’t about to stop, and however we might like to tell ourselves otherwise, the musings of a well-intentioned social scientist aren’t about to change that. Some of her proposed solutions, such as publicly rewarding children who stand up to bullying or, God forbid, report it, might seem brilliant to a tenured academic, but demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of how children work — was she not one, once? — and ought to strike terror into the heart of any parent whose offspring inhabiting the real world where children, when gathered together, can be monstrous in a way that no patrolling adult can hope to see, let alone police.

Far more interesting, and briefly touched on but not fully investigated, is what factors contribute to the sort of person who does intervene.

The evidence, as far as she presents it, suggests these people tend not to be the righteous do-gooders the author would like to make us all into, but spikier, more individualistic types who are disinclined to toe the line: awkward people the metropolitan elite tend to not to like.

Had Professor Sanderson focussed on these cases, her book might have be worth persevering with. It didn’t, and nor did I.