What Would You Do?

I was disturbed this past week when I was asked to consult on a clinical case that resulted in a suicidal woman not getting the proper mental health intervention. 

A woman who was in a deep depression with suicidal ideation and an immediate intent to die (she had written a suicide note), had cut her wrists with a razor, and had overdosed on her anti-depressants. However, neither her social worker, her husband, nor several of her church friends who were taking care of her, called 911 over a period of days.  What had happened here? Why wouldn’t anyone help this woman in distress?

Before you judge as the reader, be aware that this lack of response to humans in need has been recorded all throughout history. The events where humans failed to intervene are numerous. To name a few, there is the Nazi Holocaust occurred that in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s while the world watched and did little to intervene; there is the racial hatred that happened in the Southern part of the United States where few spoke out against the horrors of it, and there was the case of Kitty Genovese who was murdered in front of thirty-four bystanders in Queens, New York in 1964.

The current John Quiñones' primetime show, What Would You Do? on ABC, tests the concept of the “bystander effect”  or “bystander apathy.” Actors are used to act out (typically non-emergency) situations, while the cameras capture the reactions and actions of innocent bystanders. Topics include cheating on a millionaire test, an elderly person shoplifting, racism and homophobia.

The “bystander effect” is the somewhat controversial name given to a social psychological phenomenon in cases where individuals do not offer help in an emergency situation when other people are present. The probability of help has in the past been thought to be inversely proportional to the number of bystanders. In other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help.

The “bystander effect” can also be illustrated in the Christian scriptures in Jesus’ telling of the story of the Good Samaritan.  Jesus tells a story to a lawyer, who is blameless and upright in God’s eyes. He obeys the Ten Commandments, and loves his neighbor as himself. But the Jewish lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”


Jesus then explains that everyone is everyone’s neighbor, and that help should be offered to anyone in need of it, regardless of who or what that person is. A Jew is going along the road, and is attacked by bandits, who beat him severely, strip his clothes, and rob him. They leave him for dead. Later, a priest walks by. He sees the Jew, moves to the other side of the road, and walks by without helping. Later, a Levite goes by, sees him, and gives him a wide berth, going on without helping. Later, a Samaritan (considered by the Jews to be outcasts) comes by, sees him, and immediately helps him, taking him to a nearby inn, caring for him, and paying the innkeeper.

“Which of these is the neighbor of the Jew who is beaten by robbers?” Jesus asked. “The merciful one,” replied the lawyer.
— Good Samaritan

So, the answer is clear—it is righteous to help those whom we encounter and are injured or in need of some kind of help.

Darley and Latané, (1968)[1] explained the phenomenon of “bystander apathy” with the following findings:

  • there is a danger in numbers; the more people observing the less likely for an individual to respond to a situation
  • group think wins over self-preservation
  • if someone is alone and perceives an event is an emergency, he or she will be more likely to respond than if he or she is in a group setting.

In the end, it appears that there is some good news here after all. Just knowing about the phenomenon of “bystander apathy” may protect you from actually becoming that apathetic bystander. Rather than be an apathetic bystander, you can respond in a caring and genuine manner when you encounter some one in genuine need.


[1] Darley, J. M., & Latané, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 377-383.