So much for the bystander effect.
A dozen or more people near a street in Logan have pretty much turned almost 40 years of social science research on its head — or, more accurately, lifted it up like a 4,000-pound BMW and set it aside.
People aren't supposed to do what they did last Monday in Logan, but there it was in living color, captured on video for the world to see. And the world has seen it. The video went viral on the Internet and was picked up by news agencies across the globe.
If news is defined as something unexpected or out of the ordinary, this put a new spin on the old journalism-school cliché of a man biting a dog.
By now you probably know the story: 21-year-old Utah State University student Brandon Wright, a motorcycle rider without a helmet, collided with a BMW near campus, and both vehicles burst into flames. Wright was trapped beneath the escalating flames of the car's engine.
That's about the time the bystander effect is supposed to kick in. Researchers have found that a person's willingness to intervene when someone is suffering becomes less in proportion to the number of bystanders. People tend to look around, see a lot of other people, and assume someone else will offer help.
In this case, the video clearly shows a police officer arriving on the scene quickly. Surely, bystanders would step aside for an officer who is trained to get help, especially when a car's engine is on fire and threatening to explode any minute.
But not these people. First, a few ran to the car. A woman lay down by the car to examine the victim. They tried to lift the car with no success.
Then, suddenly, several more people — students, construction workers and others — ran up and lifted the car. One of them pulled Wright by a leg away from the burning wreckage.
"The danger? I didn't think about it for a minute," James Odei, a 35-year-old doctoral candidate was quoted saying by the Associated Press. "All I wanted to do was grab that car and raise it."
And here's perhaps the most interesting part: Some who helped assumed Wright was dead. They still risked their lives. One man said he couldn't bear the thought of watching the body burn.
It wasn't until the woman who got on the ground shouted that Wright was alive that people fully understood the urgency.
Social scientists began studying the bystander effect in the 1960s after the much-publicized murder of 28-year-old Kitty Genovese, who was returning to her Brooklyn apartment at 3:15 a.m. on March 13, 1964, after a shift as a bar manager. An attacker chased her and stabbed her as she yelled for help. An observer scared the attacker away, but he returned after she disappeared from the view of her neighbors, trying to enter her building from the back.
A subsequent New York Times story contained several errors, placing the number of witnesses at 38 and reporting that they didn't call police. It was a cold early morning and many people had no idea how to interpret the sounds trying to penetrate the frost on their closed windows. An investigation found only a dozen or so people heard the attack. Calls did come to the police, but clearly there was little sense of urgency by her neighbors.
The case became a symbol of a degenerating society, where people are indifferent to the needs of their neighbors. Social scientists followed this with experiments using staged crimes, leading to theories explaining the lack of human intervention.
A generation or more has been raised on the idea that Blanche DuBois, in A Streetcar Named Desire, was wrong to "always rely on the kindness of strangers."
I'm not questioning the research. It's just that the people of Logan have shown a better way. Group charity lives.
Maybe their example will spark not only a new faith in humanity, but a desire to look for ways to help others. For that, we all should thank them.
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