Eye-Witness To A Crime And Not Raisins – Reflections On The Bystander Effect In Helping Behaviour

Please note – as per request, a trigger-warning: this account features a case of witnessing self-harm.

Recently I commented on Twitter that I just returned from a court-case, where I called in as a witness to an assault that occurred at the end of August last year. The trial didn’t occur: the defendant pleaded guilty and we spent much of the day waiting in a rather new, high-ceiling, glass-walled building with no coffee machine and chocolate costing three dollars from the vending machine.

It wasn’t much fun, but it was more fun than being grilled by a defence attorney as to whether I was lying about what I saw.

One of the questions I was asked about the day:

What does a skeptic, who knows the faults of eye-witness testimony, do when they themselves are asked to do their civic duty and provide eye-witness testimony about a crime they observed?

I’m now back studying Psychology this year (after deferring due to full-time work); one of the first assignments I did as a student in first-year was on helping behaviour.

John Darley and Bibb Latané suggested a complex explanation for why people may not help in an emergency; via staging emergencies, these experimenters showed that helping was deterred by the presence of other witnesses (or bystanders). Increasing the number of bystanders in fact decreases the likelihood of helping (which isn’t very comforting, if you think about the dictum “safety in numbers”).

There were plenty of people in the crowded marketplace where we saw the attack. Only two of us went to the police. Both of us had been assaulted in that city in the past.

On the basis of their findings, John Darley and Bibb Latané (1968) proposed this five-step cognitive process that a bystander must go through when they’re deciding whether to help:

  • Notice the event.
  • Decide whether it’s an emergency.
  • Decide whether to take personal responsibility for helping.
  • Decide how to give help.
  • Actually give help.

According to the theory, if a bystander makes an unfavourable decision at any one of the steps, it can lead to not helping.

Some of the factors that can influence helping include social comparison: you check the behaviour of others to interpret the event (“Is  this a fight going on in front of us? It is, isn’t it?“) – acting unconcerned and calm may create a situation of pluralistic ignorance (Brehem & Kassin, 1996) and can lead to others thinking that there isn’t really an emergency. On the other hand, if someone does interpret it as an emergency or demonstrates a helping response – then others may be prompted to help too.

Plenty of other factors can stop you from helping out too. You feel overly self-conscious about helping, worry about making a mistake. I can imagine a skeptically-minded person could potentially not go to the police after seeing a crime, because they doubt the legitimacy of their own eye-witness testimony, for example. I personally think that learning how to do first aid is a big help in building your confidence as to “what to do” in the case of an emergency, and lessens being self-conscious about it.

When it comes to helping someone when a crime is being committed – part of what I consider to be “helping” is to report it to the authorities.

When it comes to memory, self-deception and eye-witness testimony, I remember reading Robert E. Bartholomew on the CSICOP website, where he discusses the panic that broke out on October 30, 1938, as a result of the radio broadcast of War Of The Worlds:

In his famous study of the Martian panic, Princeton University psychologist Hadley Cantril discusses the extreme variability of eyewitness descriptions of the “invasion.” These examples have been usually overlooked in subsequent popular and scholarly discussions of the panic. One person became convinced that they could smell the poison gas and feel the heat rays as described on the radio, while another became emotionally distraught and felt a choking sensation from the imaginary “gas” (Cantril 1947, 94-95). During the broadcast several residents reported observations to police “of Martians on their giant machines poised on the Jersey Palisades” (Markush 1973, 379). After checking various descriptions of the panic, Bulgatz (1992, 129) reported that a Boston woman said she could actually see the fire as described on the radio; other persons told of hearing machine gun fire or the “swish” sound of the Martians. A man even climbed atop a Manhattan building with binoculars and described seeing “the flames of battle.”

The event also reminds us that the human mind does not function like a video camera capturing each piece of data that comes into its field of vision. People interpret information as it is processed.

So, what did I do when it came to recording an event that I might have to report to the police?

I Tweeted the numberplate of the car. I phoned 000 (which is the number for emergency services in this country) and gave a description of exactly what I was seeing in front of me. Then we went straight to the police as soon as it was safe to do so (there were extenuating circumstances) and gave the same details to them, within five minutes of the crime.

In addition, I wrote it down it as soon as I got home, and I gave a copy of what I wrote to the police when they called me in to make a statement about the crime.

What can I tell you then about witnessing something then?

What follows is something I wrote, several years ago now – and you can see for yourself how the emotional state I was in colours the eventual account. It is different to the crime I was called in for, but it demonstrates how writing up the event reflects not only demonstrates what I remembered about an emergency, but what it can be like when you choose to help.

This was written about half an hour after the event.

******

Then she handed me the razor blade and I realised that I was standing in her blood.

There’s always taxis when you don’t need them and never police or ambulance. Maybe that’s just today that I feel that angry about it, but it’s something I’ve observed before. I presented on a panel about coincidences, so I really should know better. I clearly don’t.

There were dots of red paint, on the path, in the rain. I thought as I walked looking at them that it was a lot more than someone who had a leaking paint-tin and it reminded me of a sudden nosebleed a kid had, which I once saw in the city. They freaked out, must have been their first time.

She was standing outside the news agency, with her arm dripping red stripes. And I went, ‘!! Did you hurt yourself? What happened?‘ and she screamed into the news agency for someone to get the police.

I thought someone attacked her – I thought that the first step was to stop the bleeding and so I took off my jumper thinking I could use it as a tourniquet at least, and she said no. She just didn’t want the mess on the floor. She didn’t like the pattern of the blood, apparently. She didn’t want me to touch her. She said that quite plainly: “Don’t touch me“.

If I touch her, that’s assault. I can’t do first aid if someone says “Do not help me“.

There was another lady walking past, who said (of all things) that she was a student of phlebotomy. I didn’t know exactly what phlebotomy involved, but I knew it had something to do with veins. I wrote it down later, ‘phleb-something’ so I wouldn’t forget. She said that on her course there were two police officers, because they were learning it for drug testing. She said that much later though. But I remember that.

Phlebotomy-student tried to help too, firstly by insisted on stemming the bleeding – but the lady said again, no, she didn’t want that. I said she needed a chair and that we’ll clean up the floor for her? Asked if I could take her bag? And I thought she said ‘Can you take my raisins?’

And then she handed me the razor blade.

We got her a chair, at the cafe, out of the rain. The newsagency called police; the cafe apparently called the ambulance later. Freaking cafe people, especially the servers, just staring. I brought sweet tea as it was all I could think of since she didn’t want a bandage. The snotty server didn’t seem to realise that it was for shock. Doesn’t anyone do sodding First Aid anymore?

Also, what idiots would let their child wander up to us in the middle of all this and start asking why she was bleeding and not take her away from all the blood? Phlebotomy-student just turned and looked at the parents and said ‘are you helping here??’ and they got the point and finally left.

A nurse was walking past at the time, at some time, maybe five minutes after and she came over. It all happened at 6.25 – my watch is five minutes fast. If they call me, I must remember that.

The nurse sat with her and talked to her. Later the nurse said that she said that she had done it before, she was all alone and no friends and that the voices told her to kill herself.

I had towels in the back of my car, parked near the cafe. Someone said I ‘sure had a lot of towels’ but I didn’t say anything about Douglas Adams. I had them left over from the gym, from dance class, all that.

We all mopped up the blood off the ground and put the towels under where her arm was – as she kept saying she didn’t want a mess on the floor. At one point I misheard and tried to dab her hand and she said no, she did not want to be touched. So I spread the towels more on the floor, underneath her arm, instead. The nurse was dabbing her other hand. She drank the tea, got a cigarette and smoked. The nurse got her a coffee too – of course, the sodding cafe were quite willing to take money as they stared at us.

When the nurse got a bandage later, the chemist apparently sort of stared at her too when she said it was an emergency. I think we were both really unimpressed with the shopkeepers around there.

The blood gelled – I didn’t know it’d do that, like stalactites. It hung from her arm, dripping. It was getting colder, but I don’t think that was why.

Then Phlebotomy-student said that she had just started studying and that it was only today that she learned blood can do that. I said I had once written 3000 words on cutting behavior once, for an Educational Psychology assignment. Two of us, doing meta-analysis as we stood in the evidence of her life as she tried to end her life.

My shoes were getting soaked, I think it was mostly rain. I hope it was rain. You couldn’t tell much anymore, everything was running pink.

It was weird, we were both calm and just going through steps. Clean the blood again. The rain was getting most of it by now.

I stood in the rain and watched taxis go frickin’ past. I waited to wave the police or ambulance down, so they knew which cafe it was out of the handful that are on that street.

I thought about my worst recurring nightmare: I am silently screaming for help and everyone I care about turns their back and slowly walks away from me.

Then the police came the wrong way up the one-way street so I wouldn’t have seen them anyway and they had a prisoner in the back and had to figure out what to do but at least they had plastic gloves and I was kicking myself because I have those in my car as well but I only brought out towels. I am useless, I am.

They put the car racks around her as there were nosy kids about and people are just sodding rude and just stand and sneer or stare. Then the ambulance arrived and they used the bandage the nurse got and they took my and Annika’s details (she was the Phlebotomy-student) and then they took her away.

I spoke to the nurse before she left, thanked her too. Her name was Susan.

I put my towels in the bin.

My friend Athon would have known what to do. And he would have known why blood does that. He would have known immediately that phlebotomy involved blood. And he would have had his damned mobile phone on him rather than leaving it at home, and he wouldn’t have relied on a bunch of cafe shop owners who just stared. At least the newsagency gave the nurse a box of tissues to get the blood spatters off her skirt and then got a proper bucket and mop when I took away my towels.

One shop, out of four in the vicinity, who did something other than stare. Only three people on the street who did something to help. At least a hundred people in the vicinity overall. Guess what, Darley and Latané, you’re right again. Bastards.

I don’t want my orange juice anymore – it feels like it has blood in it and I had a shower and I think my coat needs to go to the cleaners and I don’t know what to do about my shoes and I’m going to bed now even though I’m hungry.

*****

Darley, J. M. & Latané, B. (1968). “Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility”Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 8: 377–383.

Brehm, S. S. & Kassin, S. M. (1996). Social Psychology (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Photo: “It rained today, V” by Newtown grafitti at http://www.flickr.com/photos/newtown_grafitti/5775634092.

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About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.


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