Chris Heath (2017)

Bystander Apathy

During a speech to the Canadian Parliament in 1961 President John F. Kennedy credits Sir Edmund Burke as the originator of the apothegm, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Vigorous searches of Burke's oeuvre have been unable to find the quotation. It would seem that the true origin of this popular quotation is a bit opaque, but that does not alter its verity. There are many other similar quotes about apathy that relate to the social psychological phenomenon commonly known as the "bystander effect", but Burke's non-quote is one of my favorites because of the unclear nature of its origin. Researchers studying the bystander effect have come to understand how it happens, but the answer to why it happens is more abstract.

Diffusion of responsibility is one of the main reasons attributed to the occurrence of the bystander effect. As the size of a group increases the attribution of the actions (or inactions) of the group that an individual feels responsible for is decreased and diffused. This diffusion of responsibility seems to be human nature. In one study 5-year-old children were susceptible to the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility. Most people who become bystanders do not know that there is a subconscious, or perhaps biological, aspect to their reaction to an event causing their non-intervention.

In the Bystander Response-Ability Forum last week we were given a handful of hypothetical (yet very real) situations and were told to move to one side of the room or the other to communicate our choice to intervene or be a bystander in each hypothetical situation. A few reasons for our action/inaction choices were taken for each situation, and the gravity of each situation increased from verbal bullying to a potential rape scenario. The reasons people have for being a bystander or not stem from their values and the strength and conviction they have for those values.

People’s values that guide their actions in bystander situations can come from a variety of places like family, education, peers, and religion. Past experiences also guide people's actions. When it comes to bystander situations it seems to be that those past experiences created or strengthened those values. Some people would not intervene in the future because of a bad experience in the past when they did intervene. Other people who did not intervene in the past would intervene in the future because they do not want to make the same mistake again. When we get the chance, or when we are forced, to reflect and consciously acknowledge our values it helps reinforce them and helps us overcome the diffusion of responsibility. I hope that when enough "good men" refuse "to do nothing" the bystander effect will become a thing of the past.

Other favorite quotes:

"In the beginning of a change the patriot is a scarce man, and brave, and hated and scorned. When his cause succeeds, the timid join him, for then it costs nothing to be a patriot."
- Mark Twain aka Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Notebook, (1904)

"He perceives very clearly that the world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it."
- Albert Einstein, Conversations with Casals (1957)