March 12, 2008


The theme this week at Goat Rope is a look at what psychology can tell us about the dark side of human nature (you will also find links and comments about current events). Monday's post was about the brutal murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964, which became a legendary example of the failure of people to intervene to help someone in trouble.

As the story was widely reported, over 30 people witnessed more than one attack on Genovese, yet no one intervened. Subsequent investigations have called some of the details into question, but clearly things like this happen all too often.

Yesterday's post was about a famous psychological experiment by Darley and Latane which tried to recreate a similar situation and got similar results. The bottom line is that there is something about groups which seems to inhibit individual helping action.

This is something that most of us have experienced in one way or another. If your car breaks down, you are probably more likely to get help on a little traveled country road than on I 95 at rush hour.

The term for this is "diffusion of responsibility." As Lauren Slater wrote in Opening Skinner's Box,.

The more people witnessing an event, the less responsible any one individual feels and, indeed, is, because responsibility is evenly distributed among the crowd. Diffusion of responsibility is further compounded by social etiquette so strong it overrides even life-and-death situations; it would be terrible, after all, to be the only one to make a fuss, and perhaps for nothing as well. Who is to say what's a real and what's a false emergency.

The fact that we often doubt ourselves doesn't help much either in this arena.

But a further experiment by Darley and Latane shows that the presence of others can even keep people from acting in their own interest. More on that tomorrow.

REPUBLIC OR EMPIRE? Having it both ways is increasingly unlikely. Here's a good item from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

LABOR AND CLIMATE CHANGE. Here's yet another item on how unions are getting more engaged in the climate change issue. Speaking of which, WV legislators were recently urged to come up with a climate plan.

VIRTUES AND INTERESTS. This article summarizes some interesting cross cultural results from experiments about cooperation and self interest.




Mark said...

Read about this case in this article. Some are questioning just how many people actually heard the screams. But diffusion of responsibility is a solid theory; I've seen it in action many times while commuting through a crowded train station, etc. It is also seen when you email a group of people and ask "would one of you take care of this" ? Odds are good none of them will.

El Cabrero said...

It's true that the story has taken on a life of its own and that it probably didn't go down exactly as it gets told. There's a little about that in Monday's post. But I think you're right: things like that happen often enough.