You know me; I’m a big believer in reusing good work. That’s why I’ll post some of my school papers on here from time to time. If they’re decent and relevant, I’ll share them on here since it’ll save me the time of writing a new post on the topic. As usual, please make excuses for the fact that this was written for a class and a grade, so it’s not quite my style. I tried editing it, but that turned out to be more trouble than it’s worth. It’s also been a while since my last post. I’ve been really busy with work and school. Lots of reading and tests and busy work. As always, comments are strongly encouraged!!
How the Field of Heuristics and Biases Can Save Lives: The Bystander Effect
On an early Sunday morning in April of 2010, 32 year-old Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax was stabbed in New York City while coming to the aid of a woman being attacked by a knife-wielding assailant. This act of heroism was not met in kind. Tale-Yax bled to death near the intersection of 144th and 88th for almost an hour and a half before medical personnel from the fire department appeared at the scene. He was already dead before they arrived. The most tragic part of this story, and the most baffling to many, is that roughly 25 people walked passed this man as he lay dying on the sidewalk. No one offered him help or even troubled to ask if he was alright. What could possibly explain this behavior? Is this an isolated incident of public inaction? Let’s look at another story before we try to answer these questions.
On March 13 1964, 28 year old Kitty Genovese was on her way back to her Queens apartment from work at 3am. Though she parked her car less than 100 feet from her apartment, she was attacked on the short walk and was stabbed to death by a serial rapist and murderer. The incident is too gruesome to describe in detail, but it is important to take a look at some aspects of it so we can have a better understanding of why this is such an important case. According to newspaper accounts following the incident, the attack lasted for at least a half an hour during which time Genovese screamed and pleaded for help. The murderer attacked Genovese and stabbed her, then fled the scene after attracting the attention of a neighbor. The killer then returned ten minutes later and inflicted a second set of injuries that proved fatal. The most shocking detail of this story is that a reported number of about three dozen of her neighbors either witnessed or heard the assault, and no one intervened or phoned the police.
Again, what happened here? Are American cities creating citizens that are so full of apathy and lacking of empathy that they won’t even trouble themselves to pick up a phone when someone is getting murdered in front of them? That’s what the New York Times concluded on the front cover of their March 27th issue of the same year. The incident was characterized as strong evidence of the failures of modern American society. However, two social psychologists working in the area at the time, Bibb Latané and John Darley, were unconvinced that the inaction of the witnesses was the result of lack of empathy. They set about investigating some of the other factors that could have played a role in this incident and their results are some of the most popular findings in all of social psychology and can be found in virtually every textbook on social psychology. Through their experiments, they concluded that the reason that no one helped when there were so many people around was precisely because of the fact that there were so many people around. These two researches had identified a phenomenon called the Bystander Effect.
Let’s change gears for a moment to take time to better understand the context. In his 2005 TED talk, ‘Why We Make Bad Decisions’, Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert discusses some of the reliable failures of human thinking. Gilbert shows, through examples like the purchasing of lottery tickets, that people’s decision making can’t be explained by any simple rational formula. This fact explains much of human behavior, not just our nonsensical impulse to waste money on lottery tickets. This ties in perfectly with the work of another psychologist, Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman is an Israeli American psychologist and winner of the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. He is made famous for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making, behavioral economics and hedonic psychology with his colleague, Amos Tversky. Kahneman and Tversky explained human decision making better than ever before with their joint work on what is called Prospect Theory. Prospect theory explains why people buy lottery tickets, are afraid of terrorists, and many other previously incomprehensible failures of rational judgment.
There is a growing field in psychology, which Tversky and Kahneman essentially created, which studies heuristics and biases. A cognitive bias is a replicable pattern of poor decision making that often stems from a particular situation. This differs from a heuristic in that the latter is a mental shortcut that can often be helpful, but leads to poor judgment under certain circumstances. To illustrate the difference, I’ll give a famous example of each. Confirmation bias is the notable tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. For a real-life example, look no further than political ads and see how both sides of the race interpret and present things like job statistics. For a popular heuristic, take the Availability Heuristic: the tendency to overestimate the likelihood of events with greater “availability” in memory, which can be influenced by how recent the memories are, or how unusual or emotionally charged they may be. To illustrate this, try estimating the proportion of words that begin with the letter “R” or “K” versus those words that have the letter “R” or “K” in the third position. Most English-speaking people could immediately think of many words that begin with the letters “R” or “K” , but it would take a more concentrated effort to think of any words where “R” or “K” is the third letter (strip, cart, burrow, ask); your immediate answer was probably that words that begin with “R” or “K” are more common. The reality is that words that have the letter “R” or “K” in the third position are more common. In fact, there are three times as many words that have the letter “K” in the third position, as have it in the first position.
So how does this tie into the cases of Kitty Genovese and Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax and the bystander effect? I’m arguing that the bystander effect is the result of another widely used heuristic, social proof. In his book Influence: Science and Practice, Psychologist Robert Cialdini used this term to describe how other’s behavior strongly influences our own, even when we’re not aware of it. He was describing it in the context of sales people taking advantage of prospective customers by convincing them to buy something by telling them that the product is extremely popular. While social proof can sometimes lead us stray in circumstances like the ones he describes, it is generally a very reliable heuristic and is particularly powerful in times of uncertainty. If you’re hesitant of what do in a situation, maybe your first formal dinner party, looking to others is a probably a good idea. The reason for this is that people are generally right, or at least that following the crowd is often a good idea. This is not to say that independence and originality aren’t extremely important, but following the crowd is, in general, a good idea. If everyone else is driving on the right side of the road, you’re probably better off doing what everyone else is doing. The problem is that this generally reliable heuristic can lead us astray when not following the crowd is indeed a good idea. This is how Gilbert’s TED talk, when viewed through the lens of heuristics and biases, ties into the bystander effect.
Why should the number of people around you impact how likely someone is to help a person in distress? After all, wouldn’t the fact that more people are nearby increase the chances of someone giving aid? The researchers I mentioned above, Latané and Darley, tested to see what impact the number of people had when someone feigned a seizure. The results were as lucid as they were counterintuitive. When it was just one subject and the seizure victim, 85% of subjects responded with an average time of 52 seconds. With one subject and one confederate (a person who seems to the subject to be another subject but is in fact working with the psychologists) who was instructed not to act, the subject responded an average of 62% of the time and took an average of 93 seconds to do so. Here’s the major shocker: with one subject and four confederates, the subject responded only 31% of the time and took an average of 166 seconds to do so. It’s important to note that the people in this experiment were just like you and me, ordinary college students. Similar findings have been found time and time again under a variety of circumstances and conditions. But why should it be that the amount of help a person is likely to get is so strongly inversely correlated with the number of potential helpers? How can we explain why no one intervened in the cases of Kitty Genovese and old Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax and countless others?
There are three main reasons for the existence of the bystander effect. The first reason is diffusion of responsibly. Maybe you look at a problem, like someone clearly cutting through a bike lock and proceeding to steal it in front of a crowd of several dozen on campus. Many might think to themselves, “Well, there are tons of other people here; someone else will probably do something.” The second is that in some situations it may be difficult to assess whether or not it’s an actual emergency, which leads to the bigger problem of pluralistic ignorance. It goes like this; you see someone collapse and have what looks like a seizure. You’re unsure of what to do. You keep your face calm, so as not to lose status by looking like an idiot in front of the people around you by overreacting, turn to the heuristic of social proof and look at the people around you to see if their acting like it’s an emergency. Meanwhile, the people around you are unsure of what to do, so they stay calm and look at you. No one is acting like it’s an emergency and the heuristic of social proof allows us to comfortably conclude that it’s probably not an emergency. This is summarized in different words by Latané and Darley in their paper describing their experiment, “Bystander inaction in real-life emergencies is often explained by “apathy,” “alienation,” and “anomie.” This experiment suggests that the explanation may lie more in the bystander’s response to other observers than in his [or her] indifference to the victim.”
In general, personality and background measures were not predictive of whether or not a person was likely to help. The implication of this is that you are no more likely to respond to a possible emergency in a crowd than anyone else. Until today! It turns out that the bystander effect is one of the easiest heuristic failures to overcome. All it takes is knowledge of the bystander effect and the ability to apply that knowledge in real life. You can be confident that if you see someone on campus or near your homes, either possibly committing a crime or undergoing a possible emergency, that no one will help because everyone assumes someone else will help, or no one wants to look stupid. That’s where your knowledge comes in – you now know not to make that assumption. You know that you need to act or it’s likely that no one else will. But, you might ask, what if it’s not really an emergency? Say you’re walking through old town and you see someone in front of you stagger, then collapse on a bench. Did they just pass out drunk, or have a heart attack? What should you do? The best thing I can suggest is to err on the side of caution and assume that it is. It might be terrifying to risk looking stupid in front of a group by possibly overreacting, but it’s worth it if it means that you might save someone’s life. Even if you’re wrong and he’s just sleeping one off, you can rest easy knowing that, if it had been an emergency, he would have received aid. If everyone around you glances at the man as he slumps over on the bench and then calmly walks on, you now know what’s going on in their minds and, most importantly, you won’t fall prey to pluralistic ignorance.
There’s only one more thing to cover. What happens if someday you are unfortunately put in a situation where you need help and you’re surrounded by a crowd of strangers? Fortunately, the solution to this is quite simple. In the event of an emergency, it’s easy to force the crowd to overcome the bystander effect. You dispel any possibility of pluralistic ignorance by unambiguously stating that it’s an emergency. If you think you’re having a heart attack, say so! This shatters the barrier of pluralistic ignorance in one move. Move two is to eliminate the diffusion of responsibility of the crowd. After all, just because they know it’s an emergency, they might expect someone else to act. Think back to how in Latané and Darley experiment 85% of subject helped (and I think it would have been much higher if the situation had been a clear emergency) when they were alone? Accomplish this in a crowd by pointing to a single person in the crowd and say, “You there, in the blue jacket! I think I’m having a heart attack. Call 911!” This way, you can eliminate the crowd’s diffusion of responsibility by shouldering the responsibility on one person.
Knowledge of the bystander effect and how to overcome it, both when you’re the bystander and the victim, are enough to prevent tragedies like those that befell Kitty and Hugo. If one of the passersby had known about the psychology of a group’s reaction to an emergency, someone would have helped. If Kitty or Hugo had known about it, they could have singled someone out and radically increased their chances to receive aid. Gilbert showed how people are less than perfectly rational decision makers. Kahneman and Tversky showed how much of this can be explained by various biases and heuristics that we all are susceptible to. I showed how the heuristic of social proof helps explain the bystander effect, as well as how to overcome it. Remember the lesson of how to overcome the bystander effect yourself, as well as the more general lesson: we aren’t instinctively optimal decision makers. If learning about the heuristic of social proof allows us to overcome the bystander effect, learning more about the field of heuristics and biases may help us in any number of ways.