How to Cry for Help

I've been continuing to enjoy reading through Influence by Cialdini when I came across an interesting pearl which has implications for well, just about everybody.

In his chapter on Social Proof, Cialdini mentions the so-called bystander apathy effect as exemplified by the terrible case of Kitty Genovese. For those of you not familiar with the story, Ms. Genovese was killed close to her home over a period of 35 minutes. Incredibly, it had been witnessed by 38 of her neighbors who watched from their apartment windows but failed to call the police. The newspaper report who eventually wrote a book on the case attributed inaction to bystander apathy and 'coldness' of the big city, but psychologists Latane and Darley also reviewed the case in detail and wondered whether no one called for help precisely because there were so many people present.

To test their theory, when they had a student pretend to have an epileptic seizure on the street, he received help 85 percent of the time when only a single bystander was present, but only 31 percent of the time when five bystanders were present. Similar effect when smoke was seen seeping from under a door.

Actually the data are pretty reassuring that when only a lone bystander is present and he / she witnesses a definite injury and emergency, help is given or summoned 100% of the time. Those numbers go down (pluralistic ignorance) when the situation multiple people are present (people tend to look for what others are doing) and if the people aren't sure an emergency is happening.

So what should you do if suddenly coming out from a crowded concert you realize you're having an emergency - like a heart attack or stroke? Cialdini's advice is clear: "Stare, speak, and point directly at that person and no one else 'You sir, in the blue jacket, I need help. Call an ambulance.' With that one utterance you would dispel all the uncertainties that might prevent or delay help. With that one statement you will have put the man in the blue jacket in the role of 'rescuer.' He should now understand that emergency aid is needed; he should understand that he, not someone else is responsible for providing aid..."

This sort of practical advice seems like a good general life lesson for all of us, but my mind also drifted to a parallel scenario equally life threatening, but in a different way: when a student is failing out of school. When a student is headed toward dropping out, there are so many observers to the problem- teachers, parents, friends, and if a learning disability is identified, school specialists, a school psychologist, therapists, and counselor. But maybe because so many people are present, could it be that less help is rendered than if there were only one?

If you're advocating for a son or daughter, may it's a more effective strategy if you pick just one person, tell them you need their help. If you're part of a group, recognize the potentially paralyzing effect of 'safety in numbers' and take action if you think you could help.

1 comment:

  1. A few months ago I read the most fascinating thing about bonobos being less likely to make eye contact when there was a third party observer present: "Similarly, in randomly sampled events (the first in each two-minute interval of video), the best predictor of whether an animal turned toward another and maintained that position, or turned away before any other head turn occurred, was not that individual's access, nor the access of the animal toward which it turned, but rather the access of the third party to that event. That is, if the third party was monitoring the event, the first animal was significantly more likely to turn away from the second than if the third party was not monitoring the event." (link: see so MANY implications! iep meetings? classroom settings? and I think it's clearly hardwired.