By Nalini Padmanabhan, cross-posted from Target Population
Anyone whoâs ever taken a psychology class would be able to tell the story of Kitty Genovese and the societal observation it gave birth to, known as the Genovese effect or the bystander effect. Her story is not easily forgotten. According to Michael Dorman of NewsDay, her 1964 murder in Queens – witnessed by 38 neighbors, none of whom acted to help her – became âa symbol of Americansâ failure to get involved.â Two weeks after the murder, the New York Timesâ Martin Gansberg described that failure to get involved as an example of the callousness and apathy of the big-city environment.
But why am I writing about this today? Today, on my way home in my own big-city environment, my mind occupied by trivialities like my upcoming thesis, I saw the Genovese effect proven wrong.
It was about an hour ago, and Iâm still shaken, but Iâm hopeful. Two men were hanging around the benches near my home metro station, and as usual, I took care to avoid eye contact with the loiterers, thinking you could never be too careful after dark in the city. As I got closer, I noticed that there was a third man on the ground. The back of his head was bleeding freely, and his eyes were closed. Glancing up at the two men who were standing, I noticed a little ruefully that they were not in fact loitering, but discussing what to do.
I stopped to ask what had happened and what I could do, and thinking about it now, Iâm so glad it didnât occur to me to walk on. Apparently, heâd hit his head pretty hard and fallen. Neither of his helpers knew him, I realized, as he regained consciousness and looked up at them in confusion. Within a few minutes, and with the support of nearly every person who passed us and stopped to help, an ambulance was on its way, and weâd propped up his head with a towel from a nearby building, coached him not to move, and enlisted a security guardâs help. The man was conscious and talking – though a little incoherently – and it looked like heâd be okay. Though I didnât do anything useful but summarize the situation for the security guard, it was only after her arrival that I felt I could leave.
And I wasnât the only one, I was happy to notice. All but one of the passersby stopped, and not one of us who stayed felt comfortable doing nothing to help. And thanks to the help of total strangers, Iâm pretty sure heâll be okay. As unfortunate as the event was – and I still donât know what he hit his head on or how – itâs so good to confirm my faith in the people around me. I saw tonight that we are basically good, even if we lose sight of that once in a while. In a big-city environment, weâre so ready to isolate ourselves with iPods and the Express on the morning commute, and so quick to clutch our bags when a friendly tourist smiles or says hello. But when it counts, we do care about and help each other, and even better, we donât think twice about it.