Thursday, November 24, 2011

Remembering the Bystander Effect this Thanksgiving Day

The Bystander Effect " is a situation where "people refuse to intervene when a crime is being committed - also referred to as the as "Genovese syndrome. The Wikipedia page for the Bystander effect gives examples of incidents that have been affected by this effect. On the website of the Charter of human rights and freedoms says :
Every person must come to the aid of anyone whose life is in peril, either personally or calling for aid, by giving him the necessary and immediate physical assistance, unless it involves danger to himself or a third person, or he has another valid reason
My story stems from a recent trip to New York on the 2167 Acela Express. Across the aisle were a elderly couple. Since they were already on the train I think they got on the train in Boston. Before the train arrived at the Newark, NJ - Penn Station (NWK) the Amtrak conductor told them that thier station was approaching. As soon as the train stopped the husband went to get his bags and their age showed as he shuffled slowly towards the door. I was on my computer using Acela's wifi  and noticed the lady was getting up very slowly towards the door. My brain was telling me that since the train stops for less than 2 minutes they were going to miss their stop. No one including me was getting up to help them. I sprang from my seat only when the husband cried out that the train door was closed. I gave him the emergency phone to call for help but we could not determine how to operate it. I ran towards the conductor  who was in another compartment and by this time the train had just started moving. I am not sure about the Amtrak rules here but the conductor made a motion towards her walkie-talkie but changed her mind and said she will some by shortly.

This couple were over 80 years old and were pretty calm despite missing the stop. I asked them if they wanted to make a call and they did not have a phone. My phone did not have a signal but soon the conductor came along and kindly offered her phone to them to make a call. The train stopped at the next scheduled stop which is Philadelphia and the couple were now helped by me and a few other passengers and I hope they got the next train back. It was the lady's 80the birthday and they were traveling to New Jersey to attend a funeral.

My 2 takeaways here are :

  • When you see someone in trouble especially in a situation like this don't hesitate to help immediately. I could have done that as soon as I saw they were unable to get down by themselves and save them time and distress.
  • I have missed trains/ stops in my life and I don't think I took the situation in as calmly as these couple. I must remember to do that when faced with a unusual situation.
This situation is not for personal situations alone . In the Harvard Business Review   article "What every leader needs to know about followers "- Barbara Kellerman (2007) says that bystanders who follow leaders trend to drag down the organization. Her definition of bystanders is people who observe but do not participate. I am definitely planning not be a bystander. how about you?