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Dr. Joti Samra talks to The Province about The Bystander Effect

(By Susan Lazaruk, The Province July 16, 2014)


Is chivalry dead?


A woman whose purse was snatched from the busy food court at Metrotown was dismayed that none of the 100 people who heard her screaming for help joined her to chase after the thief.


“I’m not sure if I’m mourning the loss of my bag or the loss of my faith in humanity,” said Kim Trehan, an events planner.


“I was really disappointed,” she said. “It would have been easy for 100 people to tackle one man.”


Matthew Gilhooly of Victoria, 24, who’s training to be a police officer, did later come to her aid, but after grabbing at the suspect’s hoodie, the would-be Good Samaritan was rewarded with a punch in the face.


“I was horrified by it,” said Trehan. “I was grateful he tried to help.”


The incident left Trehan disillusioned and questioning why someone didn’t trip the thief or throw something at him, anything to stop him as he fled.


“They just parted and let him go by,” she said.


But the fact that no one but Gilhooly tried to help may be less about society becoming more callous and uncaring than about a psychological phenomenon that explains why we don’t always charge in on a white steed when we see someone in distress.


“It’s called the bystander effect,” said Vancouver psychologist Dr. Joti Samra, referring to a concept coined by social psychologists after the infamous 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed to death outside her New York apartment while bystanders did nothing.


The theory is that the diffusion of responsibility (onlookers are less likely to intervene when there are other bystanders) and social influence (individuals in a group monitor the behaviour of others to determine how to act), lead to no one offering help.


“They think, ‘Somebody else will do something, I don’t have to do anything,’” Samra said.


And the punch in the face Gilhooly took may have a “social influence” over the behaviour of other bystanders in the future.


But Samra said the bystander effect may come into play more often in a larger city than in a small town because the sense of connection to community isn’t as strong.


That people like Gilhooly do try to help is attributed to personality characteristics, such as conscientiousness, empathy and social responsibility.

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