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The bystander's dilemma: How society can help Bad Samaritans become good

Posted April 10

It’s raining, you’re late, and a car ahead of you just spun off the road and slammed into a tree. As steam hisses from the wrecked car's hood, you must decide in a second or two whether to keep going or pull over and help.

It is the bystander’s dilemma, an ancient ethical conundrum that pits an individual’s most basic instincts — survival and safety — against the interests of another. Sometimes the failure to act doesn't matter, but other times, the consequences are deadly, as in the case of Hannah Graham, a University of Virginia student murdered in 2014.

The young woman might be alive today if bystanders who saw her with the killer and sensed trouble had intervened, authorities say. But good people see bad things and fail to get involved with troubling frequency.

Bullying expert Barbara Coloroso says only about 13 percent of children will step in to help another child in trouble. The remainder she calls "non-so-innocent" bystanders — passive enablers who allow protective impulses in their brains to throw up a barrier to action that can allow bullying, murder and even genocide.

"The bystander effect" posits that the more people witness a crime or accident, the less likely it is that someone will step forward to help. The term was coined by psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley after a woman was murdered outside her New York City apartment in 1964. Witnesses heard the screaming, but no one intervened or summoned police.

"We’d all like to think that when we see something bad happening — a person injured in an accident or someone being assaulted — that we’d step forward to render aid. But in reality most of us don’t; it’s inconvenient, or we don’t want to get involved, or we think someone else will stop to help. And although some people won’t take the initiative to help, they will take the time to photograph or videotape the event and post it on the Internet," wrote Rosemary K.M. Sword and Philip Zimbardo in Psychology Today.

But the bystander effect can also work for good: If one person does break through the psychological barriers and make an effort to help, others are more likely to help, too.

Experts say recognizing the forces that keep us from helping others is the first step to overcoming them. In other words, we can learn to be Good Samaritans ourselves, and raise children in a way that makes them likely to act heroically, too.

"Bystander education" is one way schools and universities are working to create a culture of caring.

Helping even when it costs

To help protect women from sexual abuse, college campuses have taken the lead in creating bystander-education programs. At the University of Virginia, which Hannah Graham attended before her death in 2014, a program called "Hoos Got Your Back" (the Cavaliers are colloquially known as the Wahoos) teaches students — and the greater Charlottesville community — how to safely intervene if they sense someone is in danger.

Other programs start even earlier, teaching children to become active, not passive, observers when they witness bullying on the playground or in schools.

“Getting kids at a very young age to care deeply about others, to be willing to stand up, even if it costs them, is important. If they have been taught this as children, they are more willing to step in as adults,” said Coloroso, author of “The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander.”

The effectiveness of bystander-education programs has been the subject of several studies, including one published in 2012 that examined the beliefs and attitudes of college students ages 18-22 before and after participating in a program. The study found a significant increase in the participants' intention to intervene, as well as a greater sense of personal responsibility.

The program addressed five areas: becoming aware of the potential for violence, deciding to get involved, taking responsibility, deciding how to help, and actual intervention.

"Bystander behavior changes the community norm so that everyone is acting with the same knowledge and skills," the authors said in the report.

Dr. Angela Frederick Amar, the lead author, said bystander-education programs work because they help people overcome psychological barriers to helping others, such as the fear of being embarrassed, feeling awkward or looking silly.

Amar, assistant dean and associate professor at Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing at Emory University in Atlanta, said the programs also help individuals expand the circle of people they’re inclined to help. For example, most people would not hesitate to help a friend or relative; they’re less inclined to help a stranger. Bystander education can help overcome that, she said.

“Once you talk through that, you help people recognize that a stranger is someone that other people recognize and love, and if we want to make sure that everyone we love is cared for, we all have to commit and agree that we’re all going to act when we see something,” Amar said. Taking a pledge in a bystander-education group helps formalize that resolve.

The programs also address bystander safety and enumerate ways people can help others without putting themselves at risk.

“You don’t have to be the hero rushing in with a cape,” Amar said. “You can call the campus cops, for example. Or write down a license-plate number. Nobody has to know what you did.

“Your own personal safety isn’t at risk, but you’ve done something, and set the stage for someone to be helped.”

Distraction is another tool that active bystanders can safely use. For example, if they see a girl in a threatening situation at a party, “a group of girls can dance somebody away. Just circle her, and dance her away," she said.

Bystander-education programs are also effective because they give people a chance to not only think about what they would do when faced when someone who needs help, but also to practice, Amar said. “This makes that skill set part of who they are; they don’t even have to think about it” when something disturbing occurs.

They also help overcome the snitch factor — the fear of being judged negatively by others. The programs supplant the fear of being a tattletale with the mindset that we all have a responsibility to help keep others safe, she said.

No good deed goes unpunished?

For people of faith, there’s also a moral imperative, laid out in one of Jesus’s most famous parables, the story of the Good Samaritan, which has become the namesake of many state laws enacted to protect people who try to help others from legal consequences if something goes wrong.

In the parable, told in the 10th chapter of Luke, three people pass an injured man on the side of the road, but only one, a man who came from the generally reviled province of Samaria, stopped to help.

The fact that “Good Samaritan laws” — which protect people who help from potential legal repercussions — exist without challenge in an increasingly secular culture shows the power of that New Testament story, said Adam Greenway, dean of The Billy Graham School at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

“Even with the declining biblical literacy in the modern culture, there are still certain stories that resonate. Clearly, Jesus told that story with a particular point, that we should be looking out for people who are in need, even though they may not be like us, and frankly may be quite different from us. Jews and Samaritans did not have the best of relationships,” Greenway said.

Most religions teach the duty of people to help others even at personal cost, but they compete against a culture that likes to say “No good deed goes unpunished,” a popular aphorism attributed to both Oscar Wilde and Clare Booth Luce, and featured in a song in the Broadway musical “Wicked.”

And that saying sometimes appears true, like when a person who stops to help another on the highway gets hit with a $900 hospital bill, as happened to one Minnesota woman — or worse, gets fatally hit by a car.

America’s culture of individualism also struggles against the biblical principle.

“The whole idea of looking out for one another is more of a challenge today. We’re less communitarian,” Greenway said. “People used to talk about their neighborhoods; now they talk about their subdivisions. They used to build large front porches; now they build backyard decks. We used to invite the world in; now we shut the world out.”

Some studies have shown that merely seeing another human being in need triggers neural impulses that nudge us to help. But they compete against the "fight, flight or freeze" signals that perceive — sometimes correctly — that a dangerous situation facing someone else also poses a threat to us. We are so sensitive to threats that we react not only to situations that are obviously dangerous — for example, a stranger waving a gun — but also to an unfamiliar person who is doing nothing more sinister than frowning.

Even so, many people are able to overcome the impulse to run the other way, even without bystander training. This happened recently in Salisbury, N.C., when a man loading his car at a home-improvement store heard a woman scream, stopped what he was doing, and ran to help.

The man, Edwin Sanchez, was able to stop a teenager who was attempting to steal the purse of a 73-year-old woman, who was knocked to the ground in the struggle. Sanchez caught up with the youth, and with the help of others who joined in (the “bystander effect” at work), was able to subdue him until police arrived, Salisbury Police Capt. Shelia Lingle said. No one was seriously injured.

A 26-year veteran of the Salisbury Police Department, Lingle said she witnesses selfless behavior like that a few times a year, and while police are happy to have the help when everything ends well, they caution people to keep their own safety in mind, too, lest there be a double tragedy.

But Lingle acknowledges that can be difficult. "Most people only have a split second to decide what to do," she said.

EMAIL: jgraham@deseretnews.com

TWITTER: @grahamtoday

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