Bystander intervention

Today, on an LBC radio station ‘phone-in, Nick Clegg was asked by a caller how he would have reacted if he had witnessed the incident between Charles Saatchi and Nigella Lawson, for which Saatchi has since received a police caution.

He seems to have been rather thrown by the question and my paraphrase of his answer is: “I don’t know. It would depend on what I saw and what others did, but my instinct would be to try to protect the person under attack”.

The brutal rape and murder of Kitty Genovese in New York by Winston Mosely, in the early hours of one morning in March 1964, was widely reported at the time to have been witnessed by at least 38 people over a period of half an hour, yet no-one went to help her. Although the non-intervention claim of the press turned out to be untrue (a few people did intervene – one of whom scared Mosely away for a while), these events subsequently inspired a whole series of social psychological experiments in an attempt to understand the circumstances under which bystanders would or would not help others in trouble.

The most famous of these experiments were conducted by Darley and Latané and appeared to confirm a number of hypotheses. Specifically:

  • The more people who witness an event, the less responsible each individual feels for taking action (Diffusion of responsibility).
  • When several people fail to intervene, each individual feels that they were not personally to blame for their neglect (Diffusion of blame).
  • If someone cannot see the response of other bystanders, then they might legitimately conclude that somebody else has already gone to the person’s aid.
  • Therefore, as the number of bystanders increases, the less likely it is than any bystander will intervene, or if they do so, they will intervene more slowly.

It could therefore be argued that the failure of anyone to intervene in the argument between Saatchi and Lawson is a result of these psychological effects, with everyone behaving as their cognitive systems are programmed by our biology to do.

However, there are a number of serious criticisms of such an apparently easy explanation – most notably, those of Frances Cherry. She has argued that later experimental research (for example, that of Borofsky et al and Shotland and Straw) qualifies these explanations – as they only appear to be valid if the person in danger is female.

Instead, Cherry suggests that the failure of most bystanders to intervene when hearing Kitty Genovese’s cries for help was as result of underlying societal assumptions and values which oppress and disempower entire sections of society, rather than being the result of an inherited cognitive bias.

In 1960s New York, women going home by themselves in the early hours of the morning would have been regarded by most of society as having recklessly put themselves at risk. “Nice girls” would never do such a thing and so were to blame, at least in part, for anything that might befall them.

Winding forwards to the UK in 2013 and it’s still the case that attitudes to women often stink. Victim blaming is endemic in the press and is even apparently sanctioned by those who really should know better. For example, my lovely, feminist, oldest daughter wrote a fabulous blog post (since deleted) about a cack-handed Derbyshire County Council campaign in late 2011.

Nick Clegg’s hesitation under questioning was, therefore, perhaps just a tiny, tiny bit understandable – as either a cognitive psychological or critical feminist reading might explain a general reluctance to intervene in apparently violent acts perpetrated by men on women.

But as Nick Clegg has now quite rightly clarified, no explanation could ever excuse or condone this type of violence. We still appear to have a long way to go before we are a genuinely equal society.

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