Wednesday, September 9, 2015


"[E]xplaining the dangers of modern urban life in less ominous terms does not dispel them. And as the world's populations move increasingly to the cities—half of all humanity will be city dwellers within ten years—there will be a growing need to reduce those dangers. Fortunately, our newfound understanding of the bystander "apathy" process offers real hope. Armed with this scientific knowledge, an emergency victim can increase enormously the chances of receiving aid from others. The key is the realization that groups of bystanders fail to help because the bystanders are unsure rather than unkind. They don't help because they are unsure of whether an emergency actually exists and whether they are responsible for taking action. When they are sure of their responsibilities for intervening in a clear emergency, people are exceedingly responsive!
Once it is understood that the enemy is not some unmanageable societal condition like urban depersonalization but is, instead, the simple state of uncertainty, it becomes possible for emergency victims to take specific steps to protect themselves by reducing the bystanders' uncertainty. Imagine, for example, you are spending a summer afternoon at a music concert in the park. As the concert ends and people begin leaving, you notice a slight numbness in one arm but dismiss it as nothing to be alarmed about. Yet, while moving with the crowd to the distant parking areas, you feel the numbness spreading down to your hand and up one side of your face. Feeling disoriented, you decide to sit against a tree for a moment to rest. Soon you realize that something is drastically wrong. Sitting down has not helped; in fact, the control and coordination of your muscles has worsened to the point that you are starting to have difficulty moving your mouth and tongue to speak. You try to get up but can't. A terrifying thought rushes  to mind: "Oh, God, I'm having a stroke!" Groups of people are passing by and most are paying you no attention. The few who notice the odd way you are slumped against the tree or the strange look on your face check the social evidence around them and, seeing that no one else is reacting with concern, walk on past convinced that nothing is wrong.

Were you to find yourself in such a predicament, what could you do to overcome the odds against receiving help? Because your physical abilities would be deteriorating, time would be crucial. If, before you could summon aid, you lost your speech or mobility or consciousness, your chances for assistance and for recovery would plunge drastically. It would be essential to try to request help quickly. But what would the most effective form of that request be? Moans, groans, or outcries probably would not do. They might bring you some attention, but they would not provide enough information to assure passersby that a true emergency existed.

If mere outcries are unlikely to produce help from the passing crowd, perhaps you should be more specific. Indeed, you need to do more than try to gain attention; you should call out clearly your need for assistance. You must not allow bystanders to define your situation as a nonemergency. Use the word "Help" to cry out your need for emergency aid. And don't worry about being wrong. Embarrassment is a villain to be crushed here. In the context of a possible stroke, you cannot afford to be worried about the awkwardness of overestimating your problem. The difference in cost is that between a moment of embarrassment and possible death or lifelong paralysis.

But even a resounding call for help is not your most effective tactic. Although it may reduce bystanders' doubts about whether a real emergency exists, it will not remove several other important uncertainties within each onlooker's mind: What kind of aid is required here? Should I be the one to provide the aid, or should someone more qualified do it? Has someone else already gone to get professional help, or is it my responsibility? While the bystanders stand gawking at you and grappling with these questions, time vital to your survival could be slipping away.

Clearly, then, as a victim you must do more than alert bystanders to your need for emergency assistance; you must also remove their uncertainties about how that assistance should be provided and who should provide it. But what would be the most efficient and reliable way to do so?

Based on the research findings we have seen, my advice would be to isolate one individual from the crowd: 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 should 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 the aid; and, finally, he should understand exactly how to provide it. All the scientific evidence indicates that the result should be quick, effective assistance.

In general, then, your best strategy when in need of emergency help is to reduce the uncertainties of those around you concerning your condition and their responsibilities. Be as precise as possible about your need for aid. Do not allow bystanders to come to their own conclusions because, especially in a crowd, the principle of social proof and the consequent pluralistic ignorance effect might well cause them to view your situation as a nonemergency.
And request assistance of a single individual from the group of onlookers. Fight the natural tendency to make a general request for help. Pick out one person and assign the task to that individual. Otherwise, it is too easy for everyone in the crowd to assume that someone else should help, will help, or has helped. Of all the techniques in this book designed to produce compliance with a request, this one may be the most important to remember. After all, the failure of your request for emergency aid could have severe personal consequences."
--Robert B. Cialdini, Influence: Science and Practice, 5th ed. pp. 115-116



  1. I like this fresh take on why crowds do nothing - when at the same time so many seemingly random individuals demonstrate such heroism in all sorts of situations. It really shows how the context shapes the response.

    I noticed this for the first time years ago when we had constant riots, stone throwing and mayhem when we were approaching the end of apartheid in my country, South Africa. Certain areas were deemed "no go" areas. Yet a few days later - or perhaps a few weeks - the same people, in the same places, would pose no threat. The atmosphere, the moment, had changed, and the same people once so murderous, became "human" again.

    In the same way, people can be both apathetic - or, we see from this article, confused, uncertain (and I suspect, also embarrassed) in one situation and absolute heroes in another. Fascinating. We are led once again not to blame the people, but to understand the dynamics.

    1. Hi Jane,

      Yes, exactly, this whole phenomenon of crowds and the lemming-like way even the best of us will follow along, is fascinating. I like the specific point here: that if we are called out individually to help, we tend to gladly, instantly respond. This is really good news for the human race and makes me hope I'd do the same myself (though you never know...).

      I'm fascinated as well by the Milgram experiment and the way so many of us will blindly respond to authority, or what we perceive to be authority: doctors, generals, people in white coats or who wear badges and carry guns. Respond to the point of hurting or even torturing people, even though we have to know on some level that is WRONG...


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