If you’ve had a psychology course, chances are you’ve studied the murder of Kitty Genovese that led to the bystander effect. Basically, the bystander effect, as described by psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley, is a behavior that occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation.
Well, let me share a bizarre experience that drudged up this horrific case and memory from a psych college lecture. Every December, Ross and I would take our youth group to Opry Mills in Nashville. The teens would buddy up to shop for holiday gifts, hang out and eat. That left Ross and I to do our own thing until time to meet up.
With an hour to kill before corralling up our young people, Ross and I made our way to the food court for a cup of coffee. Before we got in line, I noticed a toddler waddling in front of me. People walked by and around him.
At first I wasn’t concerned, until I realized no one was with him. I glanced about nervously looking to see if his parents or even a sibling were around. He kept walking and people would glance down, smile and keep going.
After trailing him, the bystander effect popped into my head. I remember being repulsed learning that at least 38 neighbors heard Kitty’s screams over the half hour period, but no one did anything. Was this also an instance of diffusion of responsibility?
So, after whispering to Ross and watching to see if his mom would appear, I bent down and picked the toddler up. This little cutie wasn’t getting kidnapped on our watch. The mall was super crowded and I talked to him softly while also praying that he wouldn’t cry.
After standing there for 10 minutes, we walked over and told a mall kiosk worker that we’d found the child unattended and weren’t sure what to do. We were also unsure what ethnicity he was, but he wasn’t talking.
Finally, a mall cop was called, but the child wouldn’t go to him. I could feel him tremble and start to get distressed by the several unfamiliar faces surrounding him. Since he was comfortable with me, the officer asked if I’d walk with him. After about 45 minutes, a lady approached.
She talked to the mall cop and I waited to see if the child would reach for her. That’s the true indicator. He did and the lady quickly thanked me. I’ll be completely honest here – I was surprised she wasn’t a nervous wreck and her lack of emotion bothered me.
Still, it was obvious the child recognized her and the cop was interrogating the lady as we walked away. I scolded myself for being so quick to judge her. What if she was panicking, but too shocked to cry? After this incident, I’ve tried to be more intentional and proactive. Chances are, if you assume that others are responsible for taking action or have already done so, they may assume the same thing too.
Standard reporter Lacy Garrison can be reached at 473-2191.