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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Vollaro

The Bystander Effect, In Three Acts

Last week, while sitting alone in a lounge area on the college campus where I work, I heard a loud crash coming from about twenty feet away. This particular part of the building is a large open space with about a dozen computer stations. The crashing sound emanated from the other side of this space, just out of view, but I saw three female students who were much closer look in the direction of the sound and then turn back to their computers. Curious, I stood and walked towards where the sound had come from. As I drew closer, I could see that a male student had collapsed to the floor, and was lying there, barely conscious.

The young man had apparently tried to steady himself by clutching one of the hand sanitizer stations that are positioned all over campus. The crash was the sound of it falling over when he toppled to the floor, taking it with him. While I moved towards the fallen student to see if he was OK, I watched a fourth student, a male about the same age, walk casually past the collapsed student, look down at him, and then keep walking.

I helped the young man to his feet, walked him to a nearby bench, and called the campus police. Within a minute of me hanging up, a public safety officer arrived on the scene. He talked to the student for a minute, then called the fire company who sent two medics. They also arrived quickly. After the medics had checked his vitals, the student, now recovered, stood up and walked away. By this time, I had returned to my seat on the couch and was observing the scene from a distance. The medics left soon afterward, then students began pouring out of two adjacent classrooms as the class period ended. Very soon after that, the handful of student bystanders who had initially witnessed the event also left. Twenty minutes after the young man had collapsed to the floor, it was as if nothing had happened there.

I choose the word "bystanders" very carefully. Over the years, I’ve read numerous articles about the "Bystander Effect," and I now feel like I have witnessed it firsthand. The Bystander Effect is a well-studied theory in psychology that explains why individuals in a crowd or in public spaces sometimes fail to assist people in distress. According to the theory, the individual's sense of moral responsibility towards others is "diffused" in these settings. No one person feels a complete sense of moral obligation to render assistance so no one does. I first learned about the Bystander Effect in my Intro to Psych class in the mid-1980s. The professor told us the story of Kitty Genovese, a waitress who was murdered outside her apartment building in 1964, stabbed to death by a man who had followed her home from work. The teacher explained that the crime had occurred in "full view of dozens of witnesses" from their apartment windows while she cried out for help. No one came to her aid. The reporting on the incident was later revealed to be flawed; in fact, there were not dozens of eyewitnesses, and a careful forensic analysis of her murder challenges the narrative that anyone living nearby could have had a clear understanding of what was happening to her. Still, the case prompted major research studies designed to explore the phenomenon. Collectively, this body of research, most of it done under laboratory conditions, revealed the existence of a Bystander Effect.

I remember not being shocked when I learned about the Genovese case. Of course, I thought. She lived in an apartment building---strangers living in boxes. No one really cares about their neighbors in a place like that. Already at 20 years old, I had intuited a profound truth about America: Community is great if you can find it, but many people live the vast no man's land that stretches out between communities, an entire continent of apartment complexes and lonely people in grocery stores and fast-food restaurants and anonymous neighborhoods where your neighbors can list the things they know about you on the fingers of one hand. Nearly everyone is a stranger in these spaces and no one is accountable to anyone else. Not really.


Just by chance, I learned a new word last week that could at least partially explain the bystander drama I witnessed. I was rereading Joan Didion's extraordinary essay "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" and stumbled across this passage. She was describing the teenagers she observed hanging out in the infamous Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in 1967: "We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum. Once we had seen these children, we could no longer overlook the vacuum, no longer pretend that the society's atomization could be reversed."


I turned that word over and again in my mind. What a wonderful metaphor for the fate of social cohesion and community in America. I was reminded immediately of the atomists in Ancient Greece---Democritus and Epicurus especially---philosophers who correctly surmised that the universe was comprised of atoms moving in a void, tiny invisible particles that were the building blocks of all matter, but also thought these atoms did not behave in predictable ways. Epicurus taught that atoms collided randomly with one another but were generally drawn in a downward direction. Didion uses the word atomization in this sense, I think. Humans disconnected from community, like Epicurus's atoms, are chaotic and unpredictable ("Probabilistic" a modern physicist might say). She thought that the parents of the Haight's lost children had themselves stopped believing in the rules of society sometime between 1943 and 1967 and their children had therefore become free-floating beings. Free to drift down to Haight Street as unaccompanied minors. Freed from the "web of cousins and great aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors." Freed from the responsibilities and expectations of community but also programmed, as all humans apparently are, to seek it out and create it where it doesn’t exist.

Is this the theory that explains why one young man walks by another one lying unconscious on the floor and keeps walking? I don't know, but having witnessed this chilling spectacle, I feel as though I am owed an explanation. I want to know why he would do such a thing? Was it confusion on his part? Did he perhaps not believe what his eyes were telling his brain? Is it the "empathy deficit" I keep hearing about? Am I right to search for the reasons for his failure to act in psychology and social science? Or am I letting him off the hook by doing so?

Can we blame the space itself for inculcating this lack of human response on his part? This particular building was designed by the architect John Portman, whose famous Bonaventure hotel complex in LA is the subject of an essay by Frederick Jameson, the great philosopher of postmodernism. The essay, which I read in a graduate-level critical theory class, presents the Bonaventure as the epitome of the postmodern in architecture. Its design confounds the individual's ability to locate oneself within it. He writes: [...] postmodern hyperspace---has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world." According to Jameson, this "incapacity of our minds ... to map the great global multinational and decentered communicational network" in which we live is one of the great dilemmas facing humankind.

This particular Portman building is round, with a stunning three-story-high entryway. Inside, much of the space is an open atria soaring overhead (in fact, we call the main portion of this building the "B Atrium"). Typical of a John Portman design. Because of the curious way in which the main passageways wrap around the curved interior of the space, it is easy to lose your sense of where you are in the building. Also typical of Portman.

Whether or not the building's design contributed to the bystander drama I witnessed there, Jameson's broader point about dislocation is still relevant. The cognitive effect of Jameson's "hyperspace" might explain the social environments that have evolved within it, which can function (though not in a healthy way) without strong bonds of community and social cohesion. Think of the highway during your commute, or the grocery store where you seldom see your neighbors, or the coffee shop where you are served by a different hitherto unknown barista each time you visit. Add up all of the social spaces you successfully navigate each day that do not require that any human being be able to remember your name or your face. Think about the phone in your pocket, which gives you ready access to snippets of human interaction--text, pictures, video, voice--but fails every time to recreate the full experience of it. Many individuals feel lost within the social spaces they inhabit, unmoored from a sense of belonging, like the children Didion observed on Haight Street in 1967. Humans living in a social vacuum.

Atoms drifting through the void, one not responsible for the others.


Something else unsettling occurred in those twenty minutes: After the young man had recovered and walked away, I approached the medics to inquire about him. I first introduced myself as the person who called campus police. "Is he OK," I asked?

One of the medics turned to me and brusquely said, “I can’t tell you anything about that sir.”

I politely thanked them and walked away.

Afterward, I realized the part of the bureaucracy that sends out the first responders to do their jobs worked flawlessly. The campus police arrived within a minute of my call. The medics arrived within minutes of his call. They were efficient and helpful. They'd obviously read the training manual. They were serious. They were professional. But unfortunately, none of this professionalism adds up to meaningful or satisfying human interaction. Their part in this little drama was entirely disconnected from mine, and they were happy to point this out to me. Technically, they were right: the manual says they could not share details with me, and they obeyed it to the letter, if for no other reason than to maintain the boundaries that they have been taught are necessary for the successful performance of their duties. The problem is that the manual in its many forms has come to define human behavior in so many spaces in America often at the expense of common sense and basic human decency. The rules of behavior governing the way professionals act are often written by lawyers who are hired to protect the interests of institutions and companies not by an actual community that decides what they should be. This is certainly the case on college campuses, where institutional fears of litigation are easily translated into potentially alienating codes of conduct. What you can and cannot say to students in certain situations. Where you are allowed to stand in order to engage in an act of free expression. What you must report and where you must report it if you overhear X, Y, or Z. All of it adds up to a smoothly functioning bureaucracy with some built-in protections from litigation, but it is hardly the recipe for a healthy community.

What do I now make of the phrase "campus community" now that I have seen this particular drama unfold? Or what about the dozens of other casual usages of that word, "community," which now seems to wrap itself easily around any group of people who share any commonality at all, now that the concept is finally severed from the ancient obligation to bind our lives to others, to be responsible for them. The civilization that uses "community" to describe groups of people who congregate online anonymously clearly has lost a taste for the concept---no longer believes in it or no longer believes it is a necessary component for human existence. The bar for entry to community is now ridiculously low, which renders the idea practically devoid of meaning. Are we a campus community or a cement circuit board where atoms drift past one another, each one on its way to realizing its life goals? I never thought about it much before last week, but now I can't stop thinking about it.


There's hope for us yet.

After the young man and the medics and the bystander students and the campus police left, I was still sitting there, observing people as they walked by on their way to their classes (to be honest, I was still numb). I watched a young woman walk by the still-fallen hand sanitizer station, turn around, walk back, bend down, and stand it upright. She then adjusted it so that it was perfectly positioned against the wall and continued on her way.

For an instant, I thought I might catch up to her and ask her why she did it. What formulation of personal upbringing or character makes her choose to do the right thing, the community-minded thing. But that would be too weird, wouldn't it?


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