What Bystanders Do When They Witness Violence
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
We're going to focus today on a horrific story in hopes to better understand what happened and what didn't. We will not be graphic, but even the outlines of this story are disturbing. You may want to consider that if children are listening.
Last Friday in Richmond, California, a 15-year-old girl was gang-raped in a schoolyard during a Homecoming dance. Over the course of two and a half hours, police say, as many as 20 people saw what was happening. None came forward to help. Some stayed to watch, and police say some joined in.
It brings to mind another story, last month in Chicago, where a 16-year-old honor student was beaten to death with a two-by-four after apparently stumbling into a gang fight. It was captured on a cell phone video that also showed a large crowd on the scene. No one there called for help.
How can people just watch and walk away, or stay there and look and not do anything? Is that in itself a crime? If you ever found yourself in a similar situation, how did you respond? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
We go first to California to get the latest on this story. Karl Fischer joins us from his office in Richmond. He's been covering the story for the Bay Area News Group, and thanks very much for being with us today.
Mr. KARL FISCHER (Crime Reporter, Bay Area News Group): Thank you.
CONAN: And I understand some of the young men who've been arrested in connection with this crime were arraigned today.
Mr. FISCHER: That's right. This morning, less than an hour ago - we're, of course, on the West Coast - we saw four of the five suspects who've been arrested so far arraigned in our Superior Court. Three of them are minors, and they've been charged as adults, and they also have charging enhancements on all of them that could make them eligible for life in prison if they're convicted.
CONAN: Enhancements - what does that mean?
Mr. FISCHER: That's special allegations that the prosecutors attached to the raft of charges against them, that suggest that the crime is, you know, made somewhat more reprehensible. It's a tool that they use to increase sentences for people who commit particularly egregious crimes.
CONAN: And what do we know, exactly, about what happened at that Homecoming dance at the high school?
Mr. FISCHER: Well, what we understand is that the victim, who's a student at the high school, attended the dance, which ran from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday night. And she left around 9:30 and walked outside to - with the idea she'd catch some air and perhaps also get a ride home from her father. But before she called her father, she met a classmate who encouraged her to come hang out with him and his friends in a courtyard on campus. It's dark at night, fairly well-removed from where the dance was, and some drinking went on there, and she was incapacitated. And while she was very drunk, semiconscious, she was assaulted both physically and sexually by a number of young men.
CONAN: And the police, as we heard, say that, in fact, any number of people saw what was going on and either walked away or, in some cases, joined in.
Mr. FISCHER: Yeah, that's true. It appears that there was a group of people who initiated the attack, and that others were present or coming and going during the course of it, and there seemed to be a response - at least from those who stuck around - of, you know, amusement.
There was some laughing, some participation by people who weren't involved initially in the attack, and a lot of word getting out among youth circles in town about what was going on at the high school.
CONAN: People were texting about this? Or�
Mr. FISCHER: It sounds like it. And as people were leaving the scene, they were bumping into other people and saying that it was going on and, you know, go check it out, that kind of thing.
CONAN: And how - do we know how it concluded?
Mr. FISCHER: Yeah. Basically, as it was getting out, a young man, a recent graduate from the high school, was hanging out with some friends on a street corner a few blocks from campus. And some people who had been to the scene of the rape walked past and mentioned it to them kind of jovially, and they - the reporting party went back to his home, which was a block or two away, and told his girlfriend. And a group of them were appalled, and they called 911.
As soon as the police got the call, they went right to the scene of the crime and broke it up, you know - a lot of bodies running every which way, and the victim was just laying there.
CONAN: Well, in the course of the investigation and perhaps in the course of trials that emerge from this, we will find out a lot more about what actually happened that night, and who did what. But nevertheless, this has got to have been a tremendous shock to that community.
Mr. FISCHER: It is. You know, Richmond is a tough town. It's got high rates of violent crime, a lot of gang problems and gun-related violence. But I would have to say that the community has been stunned by this particular act of violence, getting a real reaction from town.
This is not normal for the city, and there's a lot of horror being - not just from, you know, the official sources and the police and the elected officials, but from students and other young people who live here, a real sense that maybe even they're being branded or thought of outside of their community as immoral or somehow inhuman. And I think in the last couple of days, the real response in town has been to try and express publicly the fact that, you know, this is not acceptable in Richmond.
CONAN: Are any more arrests expected?
Mr. FISCHER: Yeah. It sounds like, from what the police tell me, that they have a couple of more people, at least, that they're - that they think might have been involved, that they're still looking for.
CONAN: Karl Fischer, thanks very much. We appreciate your time.
Mr. FISCHER: Thank you.
CONAN: Karl Fischer, a crime reporter for the Bay Area News Group, with us from his office in Richmond, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Joining us now is Mahzarin Banaji, professor of psychology at Harvard University, with us from a studio on the campus there in Cambridge. Thanks very much.
Professor MAHZARIN BANAJI (Psychology, Harvard University): Thank you.
CONAN: And when we hear about a case like this and we're talking about the bystanders - those who watched and did nothing and walked away, those who stayed and, at least as far as we know from that report, jeered or cheered on what was going on - we think of those people and think they must be terrible people.
Prof. BANAJI: That's right. That's the first thought that comes to our mind. What else are we to think when we hear that a horrific event like this was simply allowed to continue to happen while people just stood there? So biologists and psychologists have studied for a long, long time the incredible capacity of human beings to help, to be altruistic. And therefore, these kinds of events pose a real dilemma. How do they happen and why do they happen, given that we know that we have a capacity to help?
Evolutionary psychologists might tell us that sometimes, we're unable to help when the group that we're thinking about helping is far away because we didn't evolve to think about helping people who lived many, many miles away. But again, the bystander problem shows us that this is happening in the here and now.
Sometimes it's easy to think about helping an individual person, even though a group tragedy may not affect us. And again, the bystander problem poses a dilemma because this is about an individual human being and that person's suffering. And so, of course, there are now, we know, many, many experiments done on something called the bystander non-intervention effect, and it was done in the late �60s, following the murder of Kitty Genovese. And exactly as you say, Neal, the initial response from psychiatrists and psychologists was: Who were these horrible people who stood around watching the murder of this woman and didn't call the police? And that led to a stunning set of experiments.
And the reason I say that the experiments here are so important is that because in any given case, we don't know exactly what the pressures on the situation were, and we don't know exactly what those folks experienced. And that's why when we bring complex phenomena like this into the laboratory and we put them to the test there, we can say with far greater precision what it is that's going on. And the results of two psychologists by the name of Latane and Darley stand out here because they re-enacted certain situations in the laboratory: a person having a seizure; a bunch of smoke just flowing into a room. And all they varied was the number of people present.
And the data show over and over again that if there was one person in the 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 jump up to help drops to 10 percent, right?
So there's something about the size of the group that, although it should lead us to be more likely to help, actually produces the counterintuitive reverse effect.
CONAN: That's fascinating. So in effect, there's something biological going on here.
Prof. BANAJI: Well, we can - you know, we would want to at least say that it is something cognitive going on because here's what we think needs to happen in an emergency situation like this. First of all, you have to notice that there is an emergency.
Prof. BANAJI: And the remarkable result from these original studies is that if you are with other people sitting there, you are less likely to even notice the smoke. You are less likely to even recognize that the child's cry for help is a real cry for help, and so on. So there's something that changes in our minds to even identify what it is that's going on. And, of course, once we identify what it is that's going on, then we need to figure out some way to take action, and that's where psychologists believe something called diffusion of responsibility occurs, that the number of people, as that - yes.
CONAN: It has to - if there's a large number of people, it's not an individual's responsibility anymore. It's, hey, if Charlie over there doesn't do it, why should I do it?
Prof. BANAJI: That's correct. Try dropping a penny in an elevator with one other person present versus six others present, and you'll find the number of people helping to pick it up just drop precipitously.
CONAN: We're talking with Mahzarin Banaji. Just a reminder, Kitty Genovese was a woman who was murdered in a famous incident in New York City in the late 1960s in Kew Gardens in Queens.
Anyway, 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. We want to speak with those of you who have got experiences with similar kinds of situations. We'll begin with Stephen(ph), Stephen with us from Watford in Illinois.
STEPHEN (Caller): Hello?
CONAN: Hi, Stephen, you're on the air.
STEPHEN: Hi. I was just calling to comment on what happened. The same situation happened to me. I was about, what - 13�
CONAN: Go ahead, Stephen.
STEPHEN: Oh, I was about 13. I was jumped by about 20 or 30 guys. It happened in front of a clinic on Franklin, and the security guard didn't come out to help me until they were finished jumping me. I think probably the reason why he didn't help was because he probably feared for his own safety, and I can understand that. But I think like today, I think it's just less people caring.
CONAN: Less people caring.
STEPHEN: I don't think people care as much, probably because they don't want, you know, to be involved. They don't want to get physically harmed, or they just simply, like you guys said earlier, they don't feel like it's any of their business, you know.
And I know the situation, as far as it went on, on the South Side, it was like, kids that were going to school from their projects and kids that were already at the school, and I think that's part of our society's problem, too. I mean, I think that just because the kids are from the projects or whatever�
CONAN: That doesn't seem to have a whole lot to do with it. Stephen�
STEPHEN: Yeah, it doesn't, it doesn't. I think a lot of kids�
CONAN: Stephen, I'm afraid we're running out of time, but thank you very much for your call. Appreciate it. We do want to hear from you if you've been involved in similar incidents - not necessarily violent. Did you stop to intervene - a mother yelling at her child? It can be that. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Later this hour, our favorite film buff, Murray Horwitz, joins us pre-Halloween. You can nominate your favorite monster movie on email, email@example.com.
But right now, we're talking about bystanders. In two recent cases, no one tried to stop a fight that led to a murder in Chicago, or called the police to stop a gang rape in Richmond, California.
We're talking to Mahzarin Banaji about why we behave this way. She's a professor of psychology at Harvard. In a moment, a legal perspective. And if you've ever found yourself in circumstances analogous to this, how did you respond? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And Mahzarin Banaji, as we think about this, does it depend on what kind of crime it is?
Prof. BANAJI: You know, I would say that from the perspective of the research, the type of crime proves to be less important. What is far more important is the setup of the situation - that is to say in this case, the sheer number of other people who are watching. And I just want to go back to the previous caller and something that Lieutenant Gagan said.
You know, he said: These suspects are monsters. I don't understand how this many people, capable of such atrocious behavior, could be in one place at one time. And I think the answer is actually embedded in his - in what he says; that is, how could so many monsters gather in one place at one time? And the right answer from our perspective would be: These are not monsters. These are us. This is all of us. This has nothing to do with the fact that it happened in a particular city, although the size of the city does matter.
So smaller towns are more likely to be places where we will be helped, not because people in smaller towns are better people but because smaller towns have fewer people.
CONAN: Are smaller by definition, yeah.
Prof. BANAJI: Yeah. And that's what I think is the most important point from the research, that this is not about a few monsters. This is about everybody. It says something very difficult to us. It says that perhaps had we had been standing there, we ourselves, if we were not better educated about this particular effect and what it does to us, we may fall prey to it ourselves.
CONAN: Monstrous behavior, perhaps, but not monsters. Yeah. Let's get another caller on the air. This is Pam, Pam with us from Cortland in New York.
PAM (Caller): Yes, hello. I want to tell you the story of my daughter's experience being bullied at school. Some bullies developed a notebook that they passed around the school, cruelly targeting my daughter and many others of the classmates, including teachers. And my daughter and her friend decided to intervene and turn the notebook in to the school.
And we were very, very disheartened by how many people knew the bullying was going on and were participating in it, and it was very painful to my daughter, and they participated in the bully - they didn't turn the book into the school, like they were supposed to, or anything like that.
In fact, one of the parents of the president of my daughter's class counseled her daughter not to intervene because she was class president, rather than intervene and say hey, we need to get along and we need to not target others. And we - you know�
CONAN: This is wrong.
PAM: Right. This is very wrong. And so, you know, if everyone looks the other way, you know, then there are victims, very sad victims who get very hurt, and�
CONAN: Let me just ask Mahzarin Banaji. Bullying, is that something that would fall into this category of bystanders?
Prof. BANAJI: Yes, absolutely, I would say that it does. And that's why even though we speak about it on radio and hear the media report it when it is an event of the kind in Richmond, California, I think that what your caller is bringing up tells us that these acts of intervention are acts that we are called upon every single day to make.
I have been thinking of this in the context of institutional corruption. And again, to me, the issue of why we don't pick up the phone and report on something when we know that we're going to be protected, when it's not even throwing ourselves into the river to have to save somebody, why is it that we don't? And I think understanding what's at the heart of that inability, both at the level of the moral sort of pressure that we feel, but also much more at the level of the situations and the institutional mechanisms that surround us, that keep us from being able to do that.
CONAN: Pam, we're very sorry for what happened to your daughter.
PAM: Well, thank you, and I - she's been given lots of support for standing up, and she's become a stronger person, and she knows what she did was right. And that's really what matters.
CONAN: Well, at least somebody got a lesson out of it. Thank you very much.
PAM: Thank you so much. OK, bye.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to Gina Marie(ph), Gina Marie with us from Cleveland.
GINA MARIE (Caller): Hi. I have a lot of compassion for this girl because I had an experience like this actually happen to me when I was 16.
CONAN: Oh, no.
GINA MARIE: In Washington state. I lived in the country. I was a tomboy. I played football. I was always that girl who hung out with the boys. I always knew a lot of boys. And I went to such a small school that I actually knew these boys from kindergarten to senior year.
And I was asked to go cliff diving - which was something we used to always do - by six of them, who jumped me. And it ensued in quite a fight, and I was held down, and I was raped.
CONAN: That's awful. I'm sorry.
GINA MARIE: Thank you. There - I remember the cheering, but what I remember most is that two of the boys didn't want to join in and were threatened.
CONAN: Hmm. Mahzarin Banaji, that's interesting A, that it can happen in small towns, too; and B, that those who didn't want to participate were threatened.
Prof. BANAJI: Yeah. And again, you know, there are just so many different pressures that might end up producing a particular behavior like this, and in this case, there's less - I mean, there is some aspect of a bystander issue, even though I think it's in the cases like the Genovese murder or like the two instances that you mentioned in this show, where a large group of people with cell phones, with complete safety, had the ability to call something in, but it was just shocking to hear your reporters say that people walk away, calling people to maybe go take a look.
And so clearly they - and so there's something else going on here, and I want to argue that it's too easy to say that these people don't care. I think that that isn't the answer, even though that seems like the easiest one for us to reach for. I do think that it has to do with something that - that this is something that is universally human in some sense.
CONAN: It's also the fact, just my experience as a reporter, that there is something important about this case - at least one something important about this case we don't yet know about. So there's more to find out. But anyway, Gina Marie, I can't tell you how sorry I am, but thank you for sharing your story.
GINA MARIE: Thank you for letting me tell it.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's find out what the law says about this. Eugene Volokh is a law professor at UCLA, with us by phone from his office in Los Angeles. And it's good of you to be with us today.
Professor EUGENE VOLOKH (Law, University of California, Los Angeles): Very much my pleasure.
CONAN: And those of us who've read about this case in Richmond, California, understand that if a child is under the age of 14, it is a crime to see something and not report it in. If she is over 14 - in this case, this girl was 15 - it is not.
Prof. VOLOKH: Yeah. Generally speaking, throughout American history, it has not been a crime to fail to report. There has not been a legal duty to report a crime in progress, and certainly not to step in and try to stop it.
And the law's general view is you have a duty not to help criminals, But to try to stop them is a moral obligation, not a legal obligation, and that it's up to each person's moral judgment and, in fact, sometimes people's also practical judgment.
Sometimes unfortunately, as much as we'd like people to report crimes, it is very dangerous for them to do so because then they may be targeted for retaliation by the attacker or the attacker's friends.
So for a variety reasons, both concerns about general liberty and sympathy for some of the people who understandably fail to report, the law has generally not required reporting.
Now, in a few states - probably about 10 at this point, maybe a little fewer -there is now a general duty to report crimes that you observe, at least certain kinds of crimes, although it is very, very rarely legally enforced.
And there's some specific duties in California, and everybody - as to children under 14. In many states, there are duties imposed on schoolteachers and doctors and various other people.
CONAN: If they believe child abuse is going on, they are obliged to report it.
Prof. VOLOKH: Exactly. Well, that's the - or sometimes if they see a gunshot wound, for example, they're obliged to report it.
Prof. VOLOKH: But that's the exception rather than the rule. Generally speaking, this is seen as a matter of moral obligation and not of legal obligation.
CONAN: And you've described situations where people are what you describe as passive Samaritans. They may have seen something going on and didn't want to call it in then, but may decide to do so after a day or so of reflection or after they hear the police appeal for witnesses - and they come forward.
Prof. VOLOKH: Yeah. One problems with laws that criminalize failure to promptly report is that they then deter people from cooperating with the police later. That - let's say somebody observes a crime and for whatever reason - fear, panic, possibly a sense, well, somebody else is taking care of it, or maybe even just misperceives what's going on, is unsure, is embarrassed to come forward if it turns out that he's mistaken - doesn't call up. And then the next morning, he feels really bad and wants to call the police, or maybe the police knock on his door and they say, you know, something happened around here. Did you see anything? But now, he realizes he has committed a crime by failing to report. And at this point, there's an extra incentive for him to keep quiet.
So the law, while trying to encourage people to cooperate, encourage people to speak, may actually in some measure also discourage people from cooperating and discourage them from speaking. That's another possible problem with these kinds of duty to report laws.
CONAN: And I'm sure the police in this situation in Richmond, and of course the prosecutors eventually, too, are trying to work out, you know, who did what? Who saw what? What�
Prof. VOLOKH: Yeah.
CONAN: �actions did you take?
Prof. VOLOKH: Yeah. I should mention, though, that the law does not punish people who are purely passive, who purely refuse to - or decline to report. But if they participate, or even if they cheer people on, that itself might be treated as sufficient help to make them criminally liable. And not just for misdemeanor or failure to report, but criminally liable as accessories in the crime itself. So even standing nearby and cheering or saying, yeah, do that, or perhaps even inviting other people to join in would itself be criminal. We're talking here about the general immunity from prosecution for people who just do nothing at all. If they do something, even merely encouragement, that is a crime.
CONAN: Eugene Volokh, thank you very much for your time today.
Prof. VOLOKH: Very much my pleasure.
CONAN: Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA, with us by phone from his office there in Los Angeles.
And here's an email that we have from Katie(ph): One day when I was in high school, long ago, between classes there was a trash can on fire. Everyone was just calmly walking by. I found that I literally could not get out of line and deal with it or go tell someone. My own behavior disturbed me then and disturbs me now, and I've spent years teaching myself to be the person who could step out of the line. I know I could do that now. I hope I could intervene in more serious situations as well, but I also hope to never have to find out.
And I guess, Mahzarin Banaji, that's somebody who's experienced that situation that you describe: a large group of people but unable to act.
Prof. BANAJI: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And I really appreciate what she took away from that learning. And I would say that if there's anything for us to do here, it is to learn as individuals to practice small acts of intervention, to just sort of begin to think about events around us as our responsibility. Those are the sorts of things that we hope that our educational systems will impart to people, and that our society will sort of hold people, in some ways, responsible and for intervening and - for not intervening. And it's sort of - it's really a disturbing, in some sense, to hear from Professor Volokh that the law, in trying to improve the situation, may be setting it up in such a way that we are hurting acts of intervention.
CONAN: Mahzarin Banaji is a professor of psychology at Harvard. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to James(ph). James, calling from Portland.
JAMES (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me on. I've a - on the two different occasions when I lived in the Mission District in San Francisco, I saw individual women being forced into cars by individual men. The first time, I happened to be walking by a burrito place, and I saw two cops eating in there. So I just ran back to the burrito place and got the cops, and they stopped the abduction or whatever it was.
And the second time, it was right in front of our apartment. And I lived with a bunch of guys, and we just all went down. One of us got a baseball bat. We just surrounded the car, and we stopped the guy from taking the woman away in the car. And there was a - the third time where I was walking by what's called an SRO, which is a single-room occupancy hotel. They used to be all over the Mission. And there were a lot of bad people who live in those, ex-cons, pimps, prostitutes, etc.
CONAN: Drug addicts - that sort of thing, yeah.
JAMES: Yeah. And you don't just go into those places if you want to come out again, and especially if you don't know the people who live there. Anyway, one time I was walking underneath one, and this woman stuck her head out and just started screaming for help. She looked right down at me, and then this tattooed arm just came out and pulled her back into the window. And that time, I just kind of froze. And my friend called the cops. And we stuck around and waited, and they never showed up. And that was sort of the end of that.
But I think there's a different - a deeper layer that's being missed here, which is the - I think there's a level of misogyny in our culture that runs a lot deeper than I think - maybe a lot of older people know - but I think younger men know about it. I don't think this is just about bystanders doing nothing. If you had people joining in and laughing and watching, that's more than just the Kitty Genovese effect. That's about misogyny.
CONAN: Mahzarin Banaji, what do you think?
Prof. BANAJI: Yeah. You know, I do think that our society has changed in many, many ways in what we think is entertainment and not. I mean, 300 years ago, people took their children in the evenings to watch a cat being burned as part of entertainment, and we no longer think that that's OK. So hopefully, our standards change. And when we see the sort of the bullying stuff and what you just report on the sort of seeming enjoyment, we're talking about a very different kind of psychological phenomenon.
I think that the one that I've been focused on right now, and I think in trying to understand what those half a dozen, or dozen, or two dozen people did when they stand around, I think, it's less of that. It's more of what you said in your third situation, where you seem to freeze. And I think I'm particularly interested in that because that part seems to be very human. The other, we could sort of, you know, say, all right. There are certain types of people who just enjoy watching the suffering of others. That's a distinct and different psychological phenomenon. I think I'm far more interested in the one that is far more common.
CONAN: James, thanks very much for the call. An interesting observation, too.
CONAN: We've gotten so many calls today from people who have - regrettably were raped or assaulted and have been brave enough to call to share their story. We're sorry we did not have the chance to get to them all. But thank you all for calling. I wanted to read this email from Lee(ph) in Birmingham, Alabama: Once my family and I were in a Wal-Mart and witnessed a mother spanking her child so much and so hard it could have been easily considered abuse. Everyone in the store stopped and watched, but no one did anything except my stepmother, who followed the mother out to her car and got her tag off her car and reported her to the police. Even that scared me as a child. I was afraid of getting involved in the business of such a scary person. Well, that echoes off a lot of the things that our guest has been saying today.
And Mahzarin Banaji, thank you so much for your time.
Prof. BANAJI: You're welcome.
CONAN: Mahzarin Banaji, a professor of psychology at Harvard, joined us from a studio on the campus there in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.