October 27, 2011

Are we possibly altruistic animals? Sometimes?


Kitty Genovese

“Of all the murders committed in New York City in 1964 — 636, to be ­precise — only that of Catherine ­Susan Genovese launched a whole subfield of social science: There had to be an explanation for why 38 people could see the 28-year-old barkeep attacked outside her Kew Gardens home and yet did nothing. The answer researchers came up with, the so-called bystander effect, was hardly reassuring in its implications for human nature. But now a new study says we may have gotten the lessons of Kitty Genovese all wrong,” according to a report New York Magazine.

The bystander effect, also called “the Genovese Syndrome,” occasioned much public soul searching over the years, along with reams of psychological studies seeking to explain why the more witnesses to something bad happening to another person, the less likely any one person would intervene. The reporting that triggered it all, a series of New York Times articles by the young A.M. Rosenthal, subsequent long-time editor-in-chief at the Times, became the book Thirty-Eight Witnesses (available from Melville House), the primary text on the topic.

But now a new study, co-authored by Brown University psychology professor Joachim Krueger, calls into question the Genovese Syndrome. From examining extensive data from cities world-wide, Krueger and others have reached some surprising conclusions. According to the New York report, the new study, co-authored by Brown psychology professor Joachim Krueger, was different. The scientists pored over the existing research, looking closely at data from cities round the world. And what they discovered was surprising. New York Magazine reports:

Yes, “people in a group do, individually, become less likely to help. It’s the volunteer dilemma: ‘If there are 7 billion people who could save the world, why should it be me?’ Krueger says. But drill down, and the picture grows more complex. In situations where there’s a clear threat—when someone is trying to extinguish a raging car fire, rather than merely struggling to change a flat tire—the bystander effect actually diminishes.

“It’s counterintuitive,” says Krueger. “As the costs of a behavior become higher, you should be less likely to help.” Why that’s not so lies deep in our lizard brains. We know danger when we see it, and when we do, it induces higher levels of arousal and, therefore, more propensity to help. Even more heartening, when the costs of intervention are physical—a punch in the face or being run over by an oncoming train, instead of merely being late for work—“the bystander effect goes away,” Krueger says. And if the perpetrators are still on scene, the bystander effect can turn positive.

There is hope for us yet, we humans.


Valerie Merians is the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.