Bystander Effect, Or Why This Week Has Been Really Scary

18 Apr

I woke up Wednesday morning to a message from my friend Nathan. He had been attacked on his way home from another friend’s house. Someone had jumped on him from behind and put him in a choke hold until he’d passed out. The attackers took everything he had on him – his phone, his wallet, his passport, his e-reader, his iPod, his fancy headphones, a book I’d lent him, a sweet pair of corduroy pants we’d found earlier that day at my favourite second-hand shop. Nearly everything of value that he’d owned had been in his messenger bag, and when he woke up it was all gone.

He’d spent the night at the hospital, his message said, but he was mostly fine – just some soft tissue damage in his throat and some bruising on his back. Otherwise he’d gotten off easy. That’s what the two police officers – the ones who had taken him to the hospital and stayed with him the entire time, the ones who had bought him coffee and told him funny stories for hours on end just to keep him occupied – had told him: that he’d gotten off easy. Sure, all of his stuff had been stolen, but he’d been lucky. So lucky. It could so easily have ended differently. Today, as we walked by the spot where it happened, he said to me, “In my head there’s an alternate ending where this is all roped off with caution tape, and it’s a crime scene with my body in the middle of it.” But it didn’t end that way. This – his hoarse voice, the red marks on his throat, the bloodshot eyes, the list of things that need to be replaced – is what lucky looks like.

But still, in spite of how fortunate he is to be alive, this story didn’t have to end this way. One of the most troubling parts of what happened is the fact that no one stopped to help him while he was lying there unconscious and hurt at the corner of Gerrard and Jarvis – which, for those of you not familiar with Toronto, is a fairly well-trod intersection. It wasn’t late – only around midnight. And it’s not that there was no one around. But no one stopped, or even called 911. When he woke up, disoriented and in pain, he had to drag himself to the nearest convenience store and ask them to call someone. The thought of him – of anyone – having to do that makes my heart hurt. And I know that it doesn’t need to be this way. We can’t let it be this way.

If you see someone being assaulted or attacked, please do something. I’m not saying that you should intervene or put yourself in danger, but there are so many ways to help. Take a picture. Write down a description of the attackers that you can later give to the police. Call 911. If you see someone passed out or lying on the street, don’t assume that they’re drunk or high – err on the side of caution and call an ambulance. Make sure that they’re breathing. Stay with them. If they’re coherent enough, offer to contact their friends or family. Above all, don’t let the Bystander Effect take over. It’s so easy to do nothing and assume that someone else will step in, but it’s almost as easy to dial three little numbers on your phone. Do something because that’s what a good, moral person should do, or else do something because next time it might be you lying there. It could so easily have been you.

And if you have a friend or loved one who’s survived an assault, here’s a short list of things you should and shouldn’t do to help out. Because if I’ve learned anything over the past few days, it’s that watching someone you care for go through something like this can make you feel unbelievably helpless. But, in spite of that feeling, there are things that you can do to help.

DO ask what, specifically, the victim needs from you right now – they might need a hug, or a meal, or some time to themselves, or any number of things. It’s better to ask than to try to guess and then wind up guessing wrong.

DO offer to take care of practical things – like going grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry, or helping navigate how to replace stolen items.

DO listen to what they’re saying and validate what they’re feeling. If they’re angry, let them be angry. If they need to cry, let them cry. If they feel hopeless, let them talk about how hopeless they feel without jumping in to tell them that they’re wrong. Whatever they’re feeling is valid, and you don’t get to decide how they should or shouldn’t express their emotions. End of story.

DO just sit there and be there for them. You might have to sit for hours in what feels like awkward silence, but if they don’t want to talk, you shouldn’t try to force them. Let them decide how your time together will be spent.

DO respect their space. If they don’t want to be hugged, don’t hug them. If they don’t want to be touched, don’t touch them. If they want to be alone, let them be alone. Try as hard as possible not to violate their boundaries, because now more than ever is the time when they need to feel that their boundaries are being respected.

DON’T say, “I can’t believe this happened to you!” Don’t say, “But you’re so tall/big/strong/whatever, I can’t believe anyone would think of attacking you.” The truth is that it did happen, and making remarks about the victim’s size or strength will only lead them to feel like the assault was their fault. Because, just for the record, it wasn’t their fault.

DON’T ask if they’d been drinking. Don’t make remarks about what a bad neighbourhood it happened in. Don’t ask what they were wearing, or if they had headphones on. Chances are that they are already well aware of how these things might have increased their risk of being assaulted. You may think that you are asking innocent questions, but chances are that you are just making them feel worse.

DON’T make this all about how you feel. Yes, the fact that they were assaulted was also scary for you. Yes you are allowed to have feelings and it’s fine to want to talk about that and ask for support for yourself, but the person who it happened to is not the person to do that for you. Right now, they need to space to process their own emotions, and your job is to make that as easy for them as possible.

DON’T offer advice on how they should go about healing from this. Instead, recommend that they see a counsellor or a therapist. Seriously, leave that type of stuff up to the professionals.

I’m sure that I’m missing some stuff here, and I would love if you could leave any further tips or advice in the comments. In the meantime, I’m just going to go back to thanking whatever power is out there that kept Nathan safe that night.

Because seriously, I am just so overwhelmingly grateful that this guy is still in my life.

Gerrard & Jarvis

The intersection at Gerrard & Jarvis – used in lieu of a picture of Nathan because he hates all pictures of himself


30 Responses to “Bystander Effect, Or Why This Week Has Been Really Scary”

  1. Brenda April 18, 2014 at 1:28 am #

    I’m so sad for your friend that no one helped him. You have loads of good advice here. Great post!

  2. tapati April 18, 2014 at 1:52 am #

    I will never fail to call when someone needs help. When I was a young, battered wife without a phone the neighbors had to have heard my screams or my head bouncing against the wall and not a single one ever made the call. I always do. At the very least it puts an end to that particular beating sooner than it might have ended. From what I hear on the other side of the wall or floor, things are usually subdued after the police leave. I’m sorry no one stepped up in this instance. I think that’s almost as hurtful as the assault itself.

  3. Lois Ann April 18, 2014 at 1:54 am #

    I think even if you believe the person laying on the sidewalk is drunk or high you should call 911. Unconscious people are in danger of assault, mugging, etc as well.

  4. justme3362 April 18, 2014 at 1:54 am #

    I’d just add there isn’t necessarily a statute of limitations to support. I’ve learned to ask for a walk home since I was mugged many many years ago, but it took a friend telling me this was okay, 3 years after the fact.

    Hugs to your friend! I know this intersection and I’m so surprised.

  5. Flamingo Dancer April 18, 2014 at 2:02 am #

    It takes little involvement to call 911. So glad this story has a “happy” ending. I hope your friend changed all locks to his home also.

  6. Justine Froelker April 18, 2014 at 2:06 am #

    Thank for this! I teach about the bystander effect in my social psych chapter for my general psychology class. I make sure to spend a lot of time on it because of how important it is to challenge these myths we tell ourselves and to care and help others. I make sure to give a lot of every day horrific examples and then make it very simple. You see someone stuck on the side of the road? Call the motorist assistance number with the location, you never know what kind of help that person needs, if their phone is dead, or if the person that actually stops to help them is dangerous. I love your do’s and don’t’s also. Thank you! Justine

  7. Seraphina Quest April 18, 2014 at 2:19 am #

    That is terrifying. Thank God Nathan is still with you. You had written “If you see someone passed out or lying on the street, don’t assume that they’re drunk or high – err on the side of caution and call an ambulance. ” That is super convicting to me – I work with homeless addicts and while I have never seen one of my guys passed out on the street (they’ve always been up and moving, even if intoxicated) I can imagine I would walk by, because I know they’re actively using. Thank you.

  8. chantale April 18, 2014 at 2:26 am #

    I actually did react well, in a bad situation once…. i was riding on my bike, on the street back from work, in Longueuil, in the suburb of Montreal, and there was a bunch of teenagers around something going on… adolescents… i knew there was a high school close…. i could hear yells and screams…. i stopped… and when i saw a totally “stupid” adolescent boy, kicking another one that was lying on the ground…. and all those young people around… just looking and doing nothing… i was outraged… i just dropped my bike… and without thinking… i ran to the place and started to yell at this amazingly dumb guy… i had to be crazier then him…. he could have killed the other one…. and that would have made two really sad stories…. and i started to yell at the kids around doing nothing…. i was so angry at all of them… I told them they were criticizing adults… as i know all adolescents do…. and they were doing the same, being sheeps….. doing nothing when something really bad happen….. and as i was saying this, i could see all the adults walking around…. looking behind their legs, and running away from the situation… it was surreal….. the attacker started to yell at me… which i was very happy about…. because the other kid had the time to run away…. he jumped into a bus and managed to run away… the attacker yelled…. “you don’t know what he did to my sister!” No, i surely didn’t know…. but if he killed this kid… HE would be in jail and not the other… i never new what were the details of that story…. i could surely have been hurt… but i couldn’t stay there, watching this passively….. That’s me…. my father worked at 911, maybe that has to do with it… i don’t know… but i was very happy and proud of myself… even without any recognition of it… i am sure, that i did, make a few teenagers think…. about stuff… and the other two for sure…. but as you say… you don’t have to get involved… but at least call 911!! Thank you for this great writing!!

  9. Arianna Editrix April 18, 2014 at 2:33 am #

    I’m glad your friend is relatively ok. What happened to him was horrid and the indifference to his humanity is even worse to me. A friend of mine does a program in inner city Chicago called “Upstanders not Bystanders”. It starts on the street level, with kids and it works. Wish I could post a sign at that intersection that says “On April ___, a human being was attacked, robbed and left for dead here. What did you do for him?”

  10. Janet isserlis April 18, 2014 at 2:42 am #

    so sorry this happened

  11. sleepydumpling April 18, 2014 at 2:46 am #

    I’m sorry that your friend went through this. I hope he is able to heal and that the culprit is caught.

    Very good advice given, thank you for writing it.

  12. sula362 April 18, 2014 at 7:23 am #

    Reblogged this on Being a blog and commented:
    Excellent post to make you think.

  13. vevacha April 18, 2014 at 8:04 am #

    I’m sorry for what happened to your friend, and I’m really glad they’re okay. I remember learning about the bystander effect, as “diffusion of responsibility” in the first Psych paper I ever took, through the case study of Kitty Genovese. Learning that this kind of behaviour was not just acknowledged by psychologists but had an official term that described it was both chilling and empowering; I knew what to call it now and that reduced some of its power, but the fact that it was something clearly identifiable in society really affected me, because I realised that I’d experienced it myself multiple times in my life and hadn’t thought anything of it, including just how horrific the consequences of it could be. It seems that so many of us just don’t think about it and just try to keep our heads down, or assume that somebody else will take care of things, rather than recognising our role in creating and maintaining a just and supportive culture. So thanks for sharing this story, and your advice was really helpful too.

  14. kellyhodo April 18, 2014 at 1:22 pm #

    I worked as a victim advocate for college students during my time in graduate school, and the advice you give here is spot on. Thanks for putting that out there. I’m very sorry your friend had to experience this. I hope he is able to begin the healing process – mentally and physically. He’s lucky to have a friend like you looking out for him!

  15. deweydecimalsbutler April 18, 2014 at 1:52 pm #

    I’m so sorry your friend had this happen. As much as it pains me to say it, yes, he was “lucky.” Is it sad there are degrees of luck? And thank you for adding a Do/Don’t list. So often, people mean well but can make a tense situation worse.

  16. libbyweber April 18, 2014 at 4:35 pm #

    *hugs to all parties involved* What a terrible thing to happen. Yes, it could have been worse, but what did happen was traumatizing enough. Thank you for this harrowing reminder that even a small action by a bystander can make an enormous difference, and thank you for the list of suggestions for helping people who have gone through this.

  17. dave fancella April 18, 2014 at 7:39 pm #

    I rode my bike downtown one day and reached a point where i was so wore out, i laid in a yard by a house converted to an office.

    20 minutes later, i got up to continue my journey, but before I’d gotten far, a police car showed up. The officer asked if i knew anything about a guy laying there. When that conversation was over, a fire truck also stopped, having the same question. An ambulance drove by. They obviously answered the call as well.

    I was very relieved that someone i didnt know was watching out for me.

  18. Samantha April 18, 2014 at 8:13 pm #

    That is so incredibly scary. I’m so glad your friend is okay. I also agree with at least calling 911. Calling 911 does not endanger yourself and will get help to the person in need.

  19. essbee14 April 19, 2014 at 12:05 am #

    Yes yes yes! I work as a sexual assault advocate, and it is unbelievable the number of people that are usually around when an assault is going on who do nothing to step in (great video:
    This work has made me a much more active bystander. As long as there isn’t immediate danger to me (if there is, I dial 911), I’m fine asking people if they feel safe or if they need assistance. The worst responses are along the “F*ck off” variety (which is no skin off my back) but most of the time people are grateful to be asked. Healing wishes to your friend (and a tip of the hat to the cops who stayed with him through his hospital recovery time!).

  20. Andrew hughes April 19, 2014 at 2:44 am #

    I’m so sorry that this happened to Nathan and that no one stopped to help. I’ve never been shy about getting involved. Don’t understand people sometimes. All it takes is one person to take the first step. I’d be hurt and angry if I knew someone I loved was left like that. I used to live in downtown Toronto a long time ago and walked down some of those streets both day and night. Shocked that no one would do anything. I’ve been living in smaller communities for a number of years now and maybe people do look out for each other more than in big cities. Good advice on your part. Nathan is lucky to have you. I hope things go well and he is able to heal.

  21. engnyath April 20, 2014 at 12:12 am #

    When I worked on an ambulance crew in a very rural area in the US, dispatch would often get multiple calls about the same accident from different people who had called 911 and sometimes that was actually really helpful. People often think that someone else has probably already called for help so they don’t need to, but in a lot of cases getting more than one call can give extra information about what’s going on or where a person is or an update if the situation has changed. I’ve been on ambulance calls where information that came from later calls for help contained crucial information for finding a patient that we were looking for.

    I would also add though that seeing someone unconscious is never something to ignore, whether they are drunk or high or if it is completely unrelated. Not only are people vulnerable when they are passed out, but there’s not always a noticeably visible difference between passed out and not breathing.

  22. FullEmpty April 20, 2014 at 4:50 pm #

    Fantastic and insightful writing, and clear pointers to everyone who takes the trouble to care! Thanks 🙂

  23. fitbellies April 21, 2014 at 7:56 am #

    I’m so sorry your friend experienced something so horrific. I’m glad he is ok and that he has friends by his side. It’s a sad indictment on society that people don’t get involved.

  24. izzy82 April 22, 2014 at 12:06 am #

    😦 I’m sorry this happened to your friend and I imagine it’s been very tough for you too. This may be an unpopular opinion and while I really encourage people to take whatever action they feel they safely can, implying that someone who doesn’t intervene isn’t good or moral can be counterproductive. Witnessing violence, in the moment or the aftermath, is traumatic and people will respond to trauma by their gut instincts and there’s no right or wrong to that. I wrote a post about this just now if you’re interested.

  25. bethany April 23, 2014 at 5:53 pm #

    I was so surprised to read this today, as the other night I was a patient in emerge at st.mike’s and actually overheard paramedics talking about someone who sounds just like Nathan! It’s horrible that this happpened to him, and I wish him health, recovery and safety as he continues through life and heals from this traumatic experience.

    • bellejarblog April 23, 2014 at 5:55 pm #

      Oh weird! Yeah, that was probably him – he was taken to the ER at St. Mike’s!

  26. Ben Quick May 12, 2014 at 10:44 am #

    great post. And i’d also like to add that this is exactly why police need to work hard to establish a better relationship with the citizens of a community. At the university where i teach everyday the student paper has a police blotter and the police blotter is usually just two or three stories about couples lying in the grass in front of the dorm 2 a.m., someone really hurting no one sitting outside her room smoking a cigarette just getting some air and taking a wobbly step that looks funny to cops happening by and then being arrested for having a beer or two and a bac that shows. It is these kinds of things that cause people to think twice before calling the police when they think they may hear a neighbor being assaulted or gunshot or worse. Because if by being a Good Samaritan you end up in jail for the night you are probably not going to be a Good Samaritan. this is really something inner cities have been dealing with for years but now, ironically seems to be moving to college campuses now as well. Nobody can trust the cops.


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