March 11, 2008


Image courtesy of wikipedia.

In the wake of the highly publicized killing of Kitty Genovese in Queens, in which news reports stated that a number of people witnessed without intervening, (see yesterday's post) two psychologists decided to study how people respond to the sufferings of others.

John Darley and Bibb Latane were obviously unwilling and unable to replicate that tragedy, but the did design an illuminating experiment that showed that people often take their cues about the seriousness of a situation from other people.

As Lauren Slater described the experiment in her entertaining book Opening Skinner's Box,

They recruited naive subjects at New Your University (NYU) to participate in what appeared to be a study of student adaptation to urban college life. A student sat in a separate room and spoke into a microphone for two minutes about the challenges at NYU. In a series of separate but audio-wired rooms were tape recorders carrying other student's stories, but the naive subject didn't know the voices were pre-recorded; the subject believed they were actual neighbors.

When one of the pre-recorded "students" who had previously self-identified as having severe epilepsy pretended to have a major seizure, the scientists observed how long it took for the subjects of the experiment to notify the experimenters that something was wrong. The pretended seizure lasted for a full six minutes.

Here's what they found. Subjects were likely to intervene when they believed that the only other person in the experiment was the person with the seizure. The rate was 85 percent.

But when they believed that four or more other people were listening as well, they were much less likely to intervene. The rate was 31 percent.

In other words, as Slater put it, "There is something about a crowd of bystanders that inhibits helping behavior." So much for the old "safety in numbers" theory. The term for this is "diffusion of responsibility," about which more tomorrow.

Another interesting finding was the time factor. Ninety five percent of those who intervened did so in the first three minutes of the apparent crisis. The longer people waited to intervene in a bad situation, the less likely they were to do so.

Does that sound familiar?

SPEAKING OF PSYCHOLOGY'S DARK SIDE, here's Wired interview with Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment and wrote the recent book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding how Good People turn Evil.

TALKING SENSE. Here's conservative Ben Stein taking on the myth that tax cuts "pay for themselves."

$12 BILLION A MONTH AND A LOT OF DEAD AND INJURED PEOPLE. Must be the Iraq war we're talking about.

THEOCRATS NO MORE. This is an interesting article on the disillusionment with the religious right by some of its former leaders.

YOU DON'T NEED A WEATHERMAN to know climate change is for real. In a welcome shift, Southern Baptists have taken a stronger stand on countering it. Here is the AP and NY Times on the subject.

A THEORY OF NAMES. Here's a good one on the effects of unusual names on children. Short version: they make for better self control. I guess Johnny Cash was on to something.

I DIDN'T NOTICE THIS, but WV small schools advocates won a round with a bill this session that limits school bus rides.


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