The Bystander Effect

Creative Commons License
The City Streets

A good friend of mine told me a story the other day:

I was studying in Starbucks on cambie and broadway facing the entrance door/windows. About 7:30pm, an old Asian (didn’t really see his face to specify) man stopped and leaned on the window, seemed like he was having a hard time, then lowered himself onto the ground and stayed there.

I should note that the window he was against, on the inside of Starbucks there was a table RIGHT up against it w/ chairs around it, so anyone who was sitting at that table was literally right beside the old man, with only the glass and 1-2 inches on each side of the glass between them.

So I don’t know why, maybe partly it was the rain and mellow music playing, or the fact he was Asian and so reminded me of my grandfather and/or could’ve been anyone’s grandfather, but it upset me and I couldn’t stop looking outside that window for over the next hour and I looked at every single person who walked past him or crossed the street at that corner, or walked into/out of the Starbucks, and everyone looked and no one acknowledged or did anything. And the people at that table beside him would talk about him then leave and do nothing. Even though I’ve done it and probably would do it myself a million times (walk past w/o doing anything), for some reason this time it actually upset me.

I think maybe because he looked like an old Asian grandfather (yes, generalizing here) so I didn’t see him as a druggy or whatever, and started wondering where was his family, and how could he end up in such a situation? Then started thinking how if we were a village in China or Africa or something, or anywhere but a modern day city, that would NEVER happen b/c elders are respected/revered and taken care of, for their long lives & vast life experience compared to the rest of us, and not cast off to end up lying on a sidewalk in the rain completely ignored. The point is, they’d be taken care of.

So I took out some money and food from my backpack and put it in my pocket so I could give it to him after I left for the skytrain. I couldn’t NOT do something after watching and thinking all of the above for an hour. And every time someone or people went towards or stood near him, I thought, please help him, or do something.

Then I guess someone did do something, because around 8:45 or 9-9:15pm, cops arrived in a police car, then 2 more, a man and woman, came in an undercover car in plainclothes, which made me think they’d been off-duty. The sad thing is, while they were talking to him and trying to get him up, I was worried they would get impatient and actually thought, “please don’t end up being racist bully cops.” See DTES, highway of tears, RCMP-native relations, etc.

Luckily, they weren’t. They woke the old man up and tried getting him into the car, then poured out a bottle of sthg, so maybe he was an alcoholic, which I guess would explain his condition. But he wasn’t cooperating, just kept sitting/lying there, so more police came, then the two plainclothes ones told their colleagues to go home while they waited with the old man. Finally an ambulance came and a bunch of police and/or paramedics helped the old man up and into the ambulance.

So I was relieved that he would get obviously-needed help after all…and thankful for the cops & paramedics who came. Even though it took so long…it’s like, in a village everyone would normally care, it’d be expected of them…whereas here, NO ONE cares…BUT there are these people who have no obligation to care whatsoever, but go out of their way to give that care.

I don’t really know what my point is, but I felt really weird after the whole thing and thought you might appreciate the story.

And appreciate the story I did.  In fact, it reminded me of a night at St John Ambulance.

One Monday night, I had a meeting/training session and our teacher partway through teaching said he wasn’t feeling well and he didn’t look good, then all of a sudden later on he collapsed on the ground.  He did a really good acting job and everybody took it for real.  I observed him lean over in his chair looking ill before he fell on the ground and was gasping, but I figured it’s just my teacher and I kind of knew he’d be faking it for training.

Afterwards when we discussed the whole scenario (other people stepped up and did first aid on him and one took it so seriously he got another guy to call 911 until my instructor stopped him).  But up until then, you can’t REALLY tell whether he was faking or not.  I just sort of assumed…and the instructor lead the discussion of why it took so long for someone to take action.  Why when there’s a room full of first responders (at least 13 of us) it still took so long for someone to take charge.  (I think the reason behind that was, it threw people off and people just couldn’t believe what was happening or didn’t believe it and more importantly there were so many of us we didn’t know if the highest trained person should take charge or not.  Also if we all took charge that would make things difficult as well.  I know for a fact that if this happened in the public, say when we were walking down a street, I know everybody in that room would have responded right away).

I sort of felt guilty for sitting back and watching because I “knew” he was faking it for the lesson, since our teacher liked “unorthodoxed interesting ways of teaching”.  However my friend did bring up a good point.

What if he wasn’t faking?

I don’t think I could have lived with myself if the above was true.

The discussion eventually came down to how people like to “rubberneck” and not actually do anything about it.  Why not just go up to the guy and talk to him?  Why did everybody just watch and do nothing?  Is it so hard to pick up the phone and call 911 or 811?  It was something to learn from, and I swore to myself after that day, be it a faker or not, I’ll take charge.

The story my friend told me brings up a lot of good questions.  In fact, I’ve read somewhere several years ago that describes this gawking and doing nothing “phenomenon” called The Bystander Effect.  The gawking increases as the amount of people around the “victim” increases.  If it was one person and the old man, I bet you that person would have taken action or the probability of the bystander taking action would have increased at least tenfold.

Here’s a short article about The Bystander Effect: What is the Bystander Effect?

As for my friend’s story and how she described it, I think the old man might’ve been a diabetic and had low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), which can cause someone to seem drunk or appear intoxicated, and perhaps the police were trying to give him some sugar.

Now that you know about The Bystander Effect, next time would you stand and watch or do something?


4 thoughts on “The Bystander Effect

  1. If that were me lying there,possibly hurt or dying,I would want someone to take action.So,I try to practice what I preach.Thanks for posting this article..It gives everyone something to think about.Keep up the great work!!

  2. I experienced something like this just the other day.

    I was one of the bystanders. I did actually try to help but what I did (check for breathing) was obviously not helpful given he turned blue a minute later. I suspect what I felt was agonal breathing (what I was googling when I found your blog). The didn’t teach us about that in CPR class!!!! The didn’t teach us alot of stuff I needed to know actually!!

    The whole time all I could think was that I was not really qualified to do CPR – especially given he was now turning blue and obviously NOT getting air!! 😦 What good was I?

    I was hoping, praying, that there was someone else in that gym full of people that actually KNEW how to save the poor guy. Someone else did step in. He at least sounded like he knew what he was doing.

    There was some other stuff that happened too – the victim’s girlfriend claimed she knew CPR but I don’t really think she did judging by the two compressions she gave and then stopped.

    I don’t know. What she was doing wasn’t what they taught us in the class I took a month ago. I let her take over because what do I know? I’ve never actually had to do CPR so who am I to tell her she’s doing it wrong? What if I take over and he dies? Guess who’s fault? Mine!

    How do I know she’s not a Dr or a paramedic and is doing CPR the expert rather than layman bystander way???

    Really it was such a horrid mess that I am now considering doing EMT training and volunteer work on my one day off a week because I can’t watch that happen again. That guy is still on a ventilator. I feel like it’s my fault. So, uhm, no, I won’t watch next time. I’m gonna be kicking butt and taking names even if I do it wrong.

    1. Hi Riverbender,

      Sorry to hear that you had such a rough encounter. I just want to say that it is not your fault. It is never your fault that the person collapsed in the first place, even if a person there actually knew CPR it doesn’t necessarily mean he wouldn’t end up on ventilator. It’s a tough call. The best thing anybody in that scenario could have done was call 911 and I’m guessing that was what happened.

      To be honest. Before I became really interested in paramedicine and did a lot of studying, learning patient assessment until it was second nature, I had taken numerous first aid emergency CPR courses. I have a stack of tickets over the years. However, I admit that after taking those courses, I forget it in a couple of weeks, despite the fact that I’m technically “certified” and “qualified” for the next three years. So in those years, if I ran into the same situation as you, I would have done exactly the same thing you did. So don’t be so harsh on yourself. You did the best you could given the situation and the shock of having someone collapse on you.

      Thank you for sharing your story.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s