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Big cities, bike theft and the 'bystander effect'

bike locked to pole
CC/Flickr/whyamiKeenan
If you saw someone cutting this lock, would you intervene?

In an article that ran Saturday in the online magazine Salon, reporter Will Doig asks several psychologists to help explain the “bystander effect” — the psychological phenomenon that suggests we’re less likely to intervene or seek help for others when we’re in a crowd than when we’re alone.

Doig turned to the psychologists after watching filmmaker Casey Neistat’s short video earlier this month about how no one (well, almost no one) in New York tried to stop him from stealing his own bike, no matter how obvious he was about the task.

“For more than 50 years, ‘urban psychologists’ have been faking seizures, dropping cash and breaking into cars in broad daylight to see if strangers would intervene,” writes Doig. “They’ve discovered two things. One is that people in rural areas do indeed get involved more readily than urbanites. But they’ve also concluded that this has very little to do with morality.”

More about ambiguity than apathy

Here’s Fordham University psychology professor Harold Takooshian’s explanation for the onlookers’ behavior during Neistat’s bike-theft experiment:

 “There are several reasons the people don’t intervene. The first is that they don’t notice what’s going on — many people in the video simply don’t seem to see him. We call that stimulus overload. People in cities are surrounded by much more stimuli, so they filter things out. The second is that they notice him, but what’s happening is ambiguous [in other words, the theft is too obvious to not have an innocent explanation], so they actively ignore it. … The third is that people notice it, but they don’t know what to do. And the fourth is fear — they know they should do something, but they’re afraid to challenge someone with a hacksaw. … Apathy is only a minor factor.”

In New York and other urban areas, density plays a big role in two of those factors: stimulus overload and in ambiguity.

“Say you’re in a city, and it looks like someone is about to steal a bicycle,” Ervin Staub, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and author of “Overcoming Evil,” told Doig. “It’s already a somewhat ambiguous situation. Maybe the person is trying to get their own bicycle. But it’s made even more ambiguous because there are many other people around, all these potential helpers, and no one is taking action. That communicates something to you.”

Or, as Doig puts it:  "If you see people acting like something is no big deal, you assume the same."

Who’s most likely to help

The bystander effect varies from city to city, Doig adds. Research also has found, he says, that cities with the greatest economic challenges tend to have residents who are more likely to intervene when strangers need help.

Doig went out onto the streets of New York with a blind man, David DePorte, to test the bystander effect. The results were predictable. What was most interesting to me was what DePorte said about who is most likely to help him.  Writes Doig:

He has a ranking at the ready: first, the elderly, followed by other disabled people, then African-Americans and Hispanics, and finally, blue-collar workers, ‘like construction workers, though maybe that’s because they’re just standing around.’

Least likely? ‘Yuppies and young people,’ who he believes might be too preoccupied with their phones.

You’ll find Doig’s article on the Salon website. You can watch Neistat’s four-minute bike-theft video below.

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