Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Highstander Effect

One of my blogger friends recently did a post on something that happened in her city and mentioned what is called the Bystander Effect

Away from all the psychological sociological nomenclature that defines this inability of bystanders to intervene in an emergency situation,  I sometimes feel that we , in the big cities like Mumbai , are Champion Bystanders. 

Of course, our attitudes are often colored by what we have been subject to in our growing up years.  In a society that is becoming increasingly nuclear and imbibing all properties of "I" as opposed to "we" , it is instructive to see how we change.

When I was a child, we lived in what was then the outskirts of Pune, in an area  through which many daily wage earners of the city passed , on their way home to the villages outside Pune. Prohibition existed then, and it was not unusual to hear and see warring couples heading home to their villages,  the man usually drunk, the woman berating him for throwing money, denying their kids a meal, and the drunk fellow shouting and beating his wife as they walked home. I would rush to watch from the balcony, and was once surprised to see my mother outside, shouting at the man to behave, and  protecting the angry lady who took refuge behind her. Seeing my mother telling off the guy, some folks on the road also joined in, restrained the drunk guy, threatened to call the police, and so on. The fellow was subdued,  and they went home after some time, the woman guiding the drunk guy.

Times change.  People actually don't.

Almost 25 years later , I was living along a lakefront in a wooded area. There was a narrow road that skirted the lake and passed in front of our building. It was not unknown for the household working maids to collect twigs,branches etc for firewood on their way home, since kerosene was not easily available, and in short supply.  Home for lunch from work, and we suddenly heard threatening voices. Since we were on the ground floor, we saw a security man talk to a young girl with firewood , shouting and threatening her as firewood collection was not allowed.  Then he raised his hand , and slapped her.  He was immediately shouted at from our house, and asked to refrain from this or face an official complaint to his superiors. In the quiet of the afternoon, he had thought no one had observed.  But someone had. And acted. And the fellow was intimidated by all this.  The woman felt someone looked out for her. We didn't know either of them but sometimes things work out ...

 This ability to rush and act sometimes is the fastest lesson in trauma psychology you can get.

We lived then , more than 30 years ago ,amidst many other couples in a hostel for staff, and one of my friends  accidentally had the stove fall on her as she made tea after coming home from work. By the time I reached, she was in the outside corridor burnt,  and in huge pain , crying out , and I saw this huge semicircle of ladies (and kids) with expressions of shock and horror, simply standing and looking at her. Some of us ran to comfort her, try and help with the stuck fabrics and apply something to her skin, and maybe even just hold her hand; she  could see still, and I was aghast that so many just stood around and she saw their faces reflecting what had happened to her and how bad. We accompanied her to the hospital , but sadly she did not live.

Sometimes, one ends up being the person who is stared at. While folks stand around.

In my more active days, I was once running errands in the monsoon and was on a two wheeler going to the next suburb to collect a pathological report for my father-in-law.  I got late collecting some garam masala(2 kg) which I had to collect from a place that pounded it for you. And possibly, I  didn't see the road surface well. Because all of a sudden, the two wheeler skidded, the wheel simply whirred in the air, i was thrown up and fell down, cracking a tooth, cutting the lip and some places near the eye. First, people ran. Then they stood around and stared at me, since I must have been a vision in a saree, in all that blood on my face, sitting on the ground, holding my head, and still inexplicably pointing to the masala box , which was unaffected. A couple of rickshaws stopped, thought their seat covers didn't need any blood dripping there and quickly accelerated away. Lots of mumbling and staring but no one offered a solution. Some traffic got held up.  Finally a cab came , and asked where i stayed. Maybe the guy had a daughter back home, my age.  That guy drove me home and then to our hospital.   But yes, that feeling of helplessness has to be experienced.        

Today, one still tries not to be a bystander when one sees something bad happening to someone.

The road crossing outside our gate is a very difficult one. Too many degrees of freedom for wheeled traffic and very little time and concern for bipeds. We were waiting to cross, waiting for the traffic light to change, when a motorcycle in a hurry zoomed past, throwing an old lady carrying vegetables, off balance, and she fell. The driver was forced to stop, and after helping the lady up, and seeing that she was OK, I went up to the guy to ask what was the big hurry, didn't he see the traffic light and did he not care for those he hurt with such careless driving.

I was almost on the point of waiving to a traffic cop and calling him, when this guy slowly removes his helmet, shakes his head, puts his helmet on again, starts his bike and says ," Yeh raasta  kya aapke  baap ka hai ? (~ Does this road belong to your father?)  ..." !

(I've often answered in the affirmative and mentioned paying of taxes, but this guy zoomed off)

I wonder what the social psychologists have to say about this.

The Highstander Effect ?


  1. Ugich, the Bystander Effect is intriguing isn't it? Supposedly the more people there are the less likely someone is to come forward and help. Simply because everyone assumes that someone else will do it. The less people there are around the more likely someone will step forward. How horrible for that poor girl to be burnt like that - horrendously painful. So glad you have stepped forward in your life. We need more heroes in this world I think but it seems people just do not want to get involved or are scared of helping in difficult situations. Thanks for the 'shout out'.

    Take Care

  2. Ugich, people who really cared enough to come forward to help are fast a disappearing breed. In Delhi, we like to call this the 'sannu ki' (whats in it for me) mode.... sad, but true.

  3. Reminds me of that unfortunate 'girl molestation' case of Guwahati. People just looked until a gentleman took courage to stop the stripping.

    1. Kavita, yes I remember that ! So unfortunate , and we still do not learn anything !

  4. I have once had a minor accident on a two-wheeler. I was riding it and my mother was sitting behind me. We somehow skidded and fell. Immediately a crowd gathered around. And most of it were men...who were only delighted to have opportunity to help us up! Of course, nobody groped or molested... but some were 'gracious' enough to try and and brush the dust off our hands etc. You get the drift. I had to snatch my hand back.

  5. We are great ones for staring and even having some fun at the one who has been in an accident or at the receiving end of injustice being meted out. No one wants to get involved. So what if a woman is being molested or if she has been in an accident? We turn a blind eye to injustice, justify our silence and inaction as natural, for are we the ones affected? It is sad but true.