The Bystander Effect in Richmond

A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury. -John Stuart Mill, philosopher and economist (1806-1873)

In Esteem’s anti-bullying programs, the focus is not on the bully, nor is it on the target of the bully. The focus is on the group with the power to change the situation: the bystanders. In our programs, we call them the supporters because when they stand by and do nothing, they are really supporting the bully. Even if they don’t approve of what the bully is doing, the bully interprets their non-action as approval. On the other hand, when they speak out and claim that what the bully is doing is not okay, they are supporting the target. Perhaps you have never been a bully or been bullied; nevertheless, your actions (or inaction) when you’ve witnessed bullying have been interpreted by those around you as support. The question is, which party felt your support?

This week, the vicious gang rape of a 15-year-old girl outside of her high school’s Homecoming dance in Richmond, California is making headlines. Investigators say as many as 20 people were involved in or stood and watched the gang rape of this young woman, which lasted 2 1/2 hours. If we consider aggression on a continuum, we can see rape as a kind of extreme form of bullying, and the principles of the role of the bystander apply to those who took the role of spectator during this crime.

According to reports, as people announced over time that this was going on (through texting, taking pictures on their phones, and commenting to people they ran into), more people came to see, and some actually participated in the assault. Police said as many as 10 people were involved in the assault in a dimly lit back alley at the school, while another 10 people watched without calling 911 to report it. I want to discuss those 10 people. Many of you may have heard of the bystander non-intervention effect. For those who haven’t, following is a brief overview.

In the early 1960s, Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death for 30 minutes on the streets of a New York neighborhood. Thirty-eight individuals were aware of the attack, yet no one did anything. This led to the first of many research studies on these phenomena, all of which illustrated that the one variable that made a difference as to whether or not someone took action was the number of people present. The data show over and over again that if there is one person in a room, the likelihood of helping is around 75 percent. But as the number goes to two and three and four and five and six, the number of people who help drops to 10 percent.

What does this say about us? Psychologists call it the diffusion of responsibility – the more people that are present in a given situation, the less responsible any one individual feels to do something. If you have ever taken a CPR class, you may recall that in the event of an emergency, they recommend that while you are attending to the victim, you point to an individual and say, “You, in the red jacket, go call 911!” as opposed to just calling out “Someone call 911!” This is to bypass the effect of the diffusion of responsibility.

The Richmond case is, in fact, more egregious than the Genovese case; not one of the individuals involved in the latter case were aware of the crime in its entirety. Most of the people who had heard the screams thought it was the sound of people coming home from a bar or a mundane quarrel. Certainly, no one took pictures, told others about it, or joined in.

Researchers say that individuals who are educated regarding the bystander effect are more able to resist this effect (and the diffusion of responsibility) and take action in a crisis situation. If any good can come out of this young woman’s victimization in Richmond, let it be that we each vow to do something, say something, or take an action that aids the victim when we see something hurtful occurring, whether that is a bully and his/her target on the playground, a child being abused, or a violent sexual assault on a school campus. One person can make the difference.

Of course, this crime is not just about the bystander effect. Check back for future blogs that will look at what we can learn from looking at other perspectives on this tragedy.

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3 Responses to “The Bystander Effect in Richmond”

  1. Michelle

    Hi Lauren,

    Congratulations on your fabulous new website and blog! Thanks so much for posting on the horrific Richmond case. I look forward to reading more of your well-written, well-researched posts!

  2. Julie Mozena

    I’m glad you brought up the bystander effect (though the Richmond incident devolved into something else). Malcolm Gladstone said some very interesting things on that effect – i think it was in the Tipping Point. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Lauren!

  3. Minodora Moldoveanu

    Margarita Vargas, the “good Samaritan” in the Richmond case stated “I understand” why the people watching the rape did not call the police. And she is right. It makes sense that people do not do anything to prevent or stop a rape from taking place when you live in a rape supportive culture in which women are often objectified on so many posters, so many music videos, so many movies, and in so many people’s conversations. It does not surprise me at all that people just stayed and watched. It was all too common of a picture to them. What surprises me is that WE ARE STILL SHOCKED at the bystander effect when we all sit back and allow all the other forms of objectification of women that contribute to this rape conducive culture in the first place.


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