The Fear of Doing Good
I was sitting in the metro when I noticed a woman enter with her stroller and a handful of bags wrestling her way through the crowd. As the door closed unto one of them, her face turned bright red. I felt the urge to get up and help but I figured someone else will step in. I looked around me. Passengers were talking on the phone, staring at their watch while tapping their foot and others sitting with their eyes half closed. Someone will definitely notice and help her… I waited… and waited…Yet, I was wrong. No one held the doors nor did anyone help her free her bag. Everyone, including myself, did nothing but watch her struggle. It must have been two minutes but it certainly felt longer. Knowing what it’s like to be self-conscious in public, I sympathized with her. It bothered me so much that sometimes I couldn’t find the courage to step up and give a hand. This made me realize that actually many of us find ourselves in this situation. Often, we stand back and do not act upon things we see, whether its people filming fights on their cellphone or pretending not to see people getting bullied on the streets. What makes us so afraid to go out of our way for the good of others?
What makes us human is the ability to love and have compassion for one another. When we were young, we were taught that when a person is in danger, we would have to call the police. Yet, it is stated that the public is not legally obligated to intervene or report a crime when witnessing it. But what if you were being attacked? Sadly, that’s exactly what happened to Catherine Genovese in the streets of New York, Queens right outside her apartment. At 2 in the morning, a dozen witnesses heard the cries of the young 29-year-old woman who was being raped and no one came to her aid, not even the authorities. It was only till 4 am that she was rushed to the hospital where she was declared dead. According to psychologists, the more there are witnesses around, the less one is likely to receive help. It is known as the bystander effect. This phenomenon is caused by many factors such as the diffusion of responsibility. When there are many bystanders, we feel less guilty about not helping compared to if we were alone. We assume that it isn’t our duty to do so because we believe that other people will react. Maybe we aren’t legally obliged to help, but is it morally wrong to do so?
Another influencing factor is the pluralistic ignorance. It is when the majority of people assume that others feel differently when in fact they’re experiencing the same emotions. For example, when a teacher asks if the students understand, everyone nods yes because they think everyone else does. But, deep inside, they are just as confused as one another. In situations, we tend to look around to see what other people are doing or if they’re even noticing it. Sometimes, we don’t say anything because it’s as if no one else feel the same way, when actually deep inside they do. At Liverpool Street Station in London, a social experiment was held. An actor lay on the floor pretending to be in pain. As people passed by him without a glance, this woman who was obviously concerned stopped and observed the others. A few seconds later, a man approached the victim to ask if he was okay. Then, she followed his lead and went to assist him as well.
We can see that this woman had the tendency to follow the norm which was to not do anything. However, discovering that you are not the only person to care gives us the courage to stand up and aid the victim as well.
At times, it happens that we may be afraid to draw attention to ourselves, because we feel self-conscious. That is known to be our private self-consciousness. In other words, it is how we view ourselves and our feelings. On the other hand, the public self-consciousness is when we become aware of how others perceive us. It relates to our appearance and our behaviour (Gale). People who possesses a strong public self-awareness are those who are most likely to adopt a pro social behavior. Since they are sensitive to the feeling of being watched, they want to do good because they care about what other people think. As a shy person, I know what it’s like to hesitate to help people. I don’t like to put myself out there. It makes me feel nervous. My heart beats fast and my palms get sweaty. However, this isn’t because of my public self-consciousness. What makes me worry is the feeling that I might make things worse. What if I helped that lady pull her bag free and she would get angry for touching her things? What if I broke her bag? What if she refuses and I simply embarrass myself? At that moment, my private awareness is taking over my thoughts. My willingness to help is clouded by doubts. On the other hand, the public self-consciousness is more dependent on how others notice my behavior. Such as, if I were with a friend, I would more likely help the woman because I would want them to think that I’m a friendly and a kind-hearted person. These two can both cause the bystander effect and yet are two completely different things.
Recently, I was surfing the web scrolling through random Facebook videos when I came upon this video of a two year old baby. Her name was Wang Yue. She was walking alone in a busy marketing street in China when she was suddenly hit by a truck. What’s worse was to see how many passerby left her there, not doing anything, slowly letting her die. Even as a second truck crushed her, she lay there unmoving like a lifeless doll. Finally, a woman came to move her body to safety. Sadly, it was too late and the toddler was announced brain dead.
(Viewer discretion advised)
Evidently, this is an extreme case of the bystander effect. This traumatic event lead us to question how the cultural differences influence the bystander effect. According to an experiment in 23 large cities all over the world, the countries that have a higher economic productivity were less likely to help. Also, experimenters noticed that cities from Latin America or Spain were in overall more helping than other international countries. They concluded that these cultures possess the social quality of being kind, friendly and good-natured. In the Latin culture, they believe in the “Espiritismo” which is the belief that good and evil spirits can affect the well-being and spirit of a person. It is similar to Karma. On the contrary, the United States is an individualistic society and they are ranked to be one of the least society to help. Their values include individuality and privacy. So, this discourages them to not depend on others and encourages them to work hard on their own. The difference in the cultures actually have an impact in how we interact with others. Depending on the way we were raised, it influences our willingness to help.
Finding the courage yourself, to step out of your comfort zone is difficult. According to John W. Toumbourour, the part of the brain that is associated to social attachment and bonding is active when it comes to making decision on providing a charitable donation. When we make a good act, we always think of the social aspect related to it. Courageous acts are “rarely impulsive”. In fact, we take the time to think and make a decision first. We weight out the risks versus the benefits. Some may do it out for their own benefit and others for the benefit of others. Even the most empathetic people who are the most likely to help others, do it not only for the good of others, but to reduce their own distress. It’s like if an elderly asked for your help to carry her bags and you refuse. Later on, you will think back to it and constantly feel a sense of guilt. Sometimes, helping others isn’t about the people, but also for your own good.
With this being said, the point of all of this isn’t about being a hero. It’s to show that little things can actually make a difference. To not act when it’s too late. We often see injustice be done and yet not act upon it. Learning about these tragedies made me realize that being passive about these wrongdoings can make me just as guilty as the person who commit it. Similar to the bystanders who didn’t care about the dying victim right next to them. There is no harm in trying to do good even if other’s refuse it. What matters it to try. After doing all my research, I realized that life is about making connections: the ability to share emotions. We are so caught up in our own lives that we are being selfish to not think of others first. When I interviewed Suzan Finch, a psychology teacher, she said “…we align ourselves to the situations we best understand…I’ve know what it’s like to be going in the metro with a stroller and worrying about all the bags. However a 20-year-old man cannot relate to that. ” To sympathize with others is what connects us all together. Put yourself in their shoes and know what it’s like to be in their place.