The Effect of Groups on Our Capacity to Help
I distinctly remember the first time I learned about social psychology–I was sitting in a large auditorium when my dry Psychology 101 professor clicked his slideshow to an image of NYC in the 60’s. As I doodled in the margins of my notebook, my professor began to speak about Kitty Genovese, a woman who was brutally attacked and killed near her home in Queens in 1964.
It was later discovered that her very own neighbors heard her screams and cries for help but did nothing. Kitty’s story has become the cautionary tale for the bystander effect, a theory that the more bystanders that are present, the less likely someone is to step out and help. The reasoning is murky (and some have even called into question the facts of Kitty’s story) but studies inspired by Kitty’s murder have found that people in groups experience apathy and believe if help is needed that someone else, someone more suited to help, will step forward and take the actions needed. Kitty’s story and the questions it raises remain so compelling, a movie is coming out over 50 years later in the film 37.
I was quite shaken by hearing about Kitty and vowed to never allow myself to be a bystander. I have called 9-1-1 numerous times and have stopped to ask strangers on the street or in the train if they need help. But I do notice in those moments a pull to not act and I always have to consciously push through my own hesitation. It is hard to break from my routine and I worry about how reaching out might impact my day and what I need to do. Offering help feels like taking on a lot of responsibility and I do hope someone else will reach out to help them first before I have a chance.
The 21st Century Bystander Effect
I couldn’t help think of the bystander effect as I was reading Jon Ronson’s book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Ronson interviews people whose greatest errors in judgment have been witnessed on social media and they have suffered great public backlash. What Rohnson finds throughout his research and interviews is that social media has come to serve as a modern day judge and jury. Twitter, Facebook, and blogs have given the average person a voice and a forum to express feelings and things they find unjust. It has the potential to be an extremely positive, regulating force- checking and pushing back against powerful people and organizations who mistreat, abuse, and have unfair practices. Yet part of what social media has evolved into is a space for people to take out their collective aggression. It is an inverse to the bystander effect that Kitty experienced–instead of staying quiet, bystanders can openly share their point of view with out risking consequence or taking on responsibility. And they are able to do it with some degree of anonymity with out having to directly come in contact with the person they are commenting on. Even with people who have Facebook profiles as themselves, there is a careful curation process that goes on where you reveal only what you want in conjunction with the persona you want to put out to the world.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed lays out numerous scenarios that go like this- a person has a transgression, it catches the public’s eye on the internet, and there is an online response that is aggressive, often threatening, and has a long-lasting impact on their lives. Some of these transgressions are bad, really bad. In particular, the book opens with a journalist who knowingly fabricated content and then did a terrible job taking responsibility for his actions. Lesser offenders are two techies who made off-color, misogynistic jokes at a conference, a PR woman who tweeted an attempt at a joke that ended up coming racist and in very poor taste, and a young woman who took a photo next to a sign at Arlington National Cemetery that was construed as being anti-Americanl. In particular with women, sexually violent content and threats were common on social media. Ronson also noted towards the end of the book that the women he interviewed “fared the worst” and the men who had been fired due to social media attention had gotten new jobs but the women had not. The women continue to bare the scarlet letter of the liability.
Why Is the Internet Such a Good Place For People to Cross the Line?
In more brutal and archaic times, people found guilty of a crime were publicly stoned, whipped, and put in the stocks. The punishment was often brutal physical pain but the public element was certainly part of the equation as well. Ronson asks whether social media and the internet has become our new public square for people to endure punishment and degradation. Similarly to how a bystander must have felt standing in a crowded market watching someone take their lashings, even if you are not participating in the punishment, it is hard to look away. You are a passive participant. And even if you feel it is unjust, it is hard to speak up and single yourself out of the group.
Furthermore, the internet allows you to not physically with the person you are writing a nasty tweet about. You can’t see their face and their humanity. You cannot see the impact of the hurtful words on their face and how it reverberates through their lives. What is the lasting impact of shame and humiliation? How is someone effected by a collective force saying unanimously, we think you are despicable!
I do have to admit that the one area of being helpful to strangers that I really struggle with is public parenting. When I witness a parent being overly critical and verbally punitive, I feel deeply uncomfortable to the point of nausea. I wonder what might be helpful in that moment, if anything. And I certainly don’t feel like picking a fight with an angry parent on the A train. Yet if someone were to write a blogpost about parenting styles, I would have no hesitation in responding to that post and writing openly about my viewpoint. That setting feels like a safe, controlled environment where there is little danger of misinterpretation. I wouldn’t have to take the backlash of the parent or see my impact on them if my words were hurtful. It is a lower risk context to speak openly and freely.
So You Have Been Privately Shamed
It’s no coincidence that Ronson uses the word “shame” in his title and makes it a big focus of his book. In my NYC therapy practice, I get close to people’s shame everyday. In Wikipedia’s definition of shame, it is actually described as a “social emotion“, which is defined as “an emotion that requires the mental representations of other people”. This means that if an external force tells you that you are no good, you internalize that feeling and believe you are no good. You make decisions from a place of no good, you carry yourself as no good, and that feeling can infiltrate every part of your world. Depression, PTSD, low self esteem, self blame and many other struggles that bring people to therapy in the first place have deep roots in shame.
My therapy practice has experienced 21st century shaming first hand through Yelp. It is hard to find a good therapist so it feels important to have a space where people can share their experiences and provide cautionary tales. Yet loopholes with verifying identities and experiences can make Yelp a murky resource and it is hard to feel misrepresented in writing, especially in such a public venue.
Shame happens on the ground level in systems such as families, schools, and relationships of all sorts. And there are versions of the bystander effect that happen in these groups that allow shame and harm to come to those close to us. We enable and participate in mistreatment through non-action and allowing hazardous patterns to continue. And now on this broader level, we have social media as another arena for shame and judgment to be communicated. We have a responsibility as members of the human race to be mindful of our words and our impact on others. And the best way to recover from shame is to have someone close to you accept you wholly, shame and all.