Today’s Bunker Logic and Reason lesson is on a cognitive bias called The Bystander Effect. Let’s get to it!
The BYSTANDER EFFECT is the social phenomenon of people being less likely to offer assistance or help the more people are available to help. That was awkward! Let me rephrase: The more people there are who are available to help, the less likely it is that any individual person will actually provide help.
The Bystander Effect can be used to describe some very common phenomena… like people driving by an accident when they see that others are nearby who could help – that is, the assumption that someone else will step up if there are enough “bystanders.” It can also be an element in some lesser known phenomena like when a small cadre of revolutionaries (an ideological minority) are able to capture the mainstream of communication (or a whole country through a revolution) because a majority of the majority minded people always assume someone else will resist and stop the vocal minority before it is too late.
The BYSTANDER EFFECT is unique in that it is really defined by the number of people eligible to offer help. So if you came upon an accident victim and no one else was around, the majority of people the majority of the time would render aid immediately and without thought or fear. The probability of any individual rendering aid drops in direct relation to how many people the individual perceives as being available to render aid. This can be explained in a number of ways.
1.) People believe they will be “just in the way” if they step up to offer help.
2.) People believe, without evidence, that they are less qualified to offer aid than an unidentified/unnamed “someone” in the crowd who could do better.
3.) People are generally not wanting to be troubled, as the Good Samaritan was – who alone stopped while the injured man’s countrymen crossed over and avoided assisting their neighbor.
4.) People fear being held responsible (in a litigious society) if they help and something goes wrong.
In the larger example, where a small group of boisterous activists can take over the agenda in everything from a Facebook Group to an entire country, the phenomenon is amplified in many of the same ways. People are afraid of resistance, afraid of losing what they have (even if by not standing up, they WILL lose EVERYTHING they have,) etc. This reality explains why so many are willing to speak privately and sometimes in a limited public capacity, against things they think are wrong (government overreach,) but when it comes to suffering personal loss by standing by their convictions, they will – in the end – do nothing. The Bolsheviks were a tiny minority group even among the minority of socialists in a country with a thousand years of history, but this miniscule minority was able to capture a revolution that overthrew the Empire of Russia and ushered in a brutal dictatorship that killed a hundred million people in 70 years. Why? Solzhenitsyn identifies it as this very Bystander Effect.
People refused to stand when they could stand and they were taken down group by group. As a whole, the people opposed to the Soviet tyranny were larger in number by far, but the sheer numbers and the Bystander Effect, meant that individuals refused to act so long as they felt a modicum (though mythical) of safety in remaining silent and compliant. Solzhenitsyn, through his own non-fiction works and through his fictional characters, pointed out that only later did they realize that they always had the strength to resist and the numbers to prevail, but their personal cowardice kept them from acting when they could have done something. Dictators know this, and they count on it.
Have a great day!
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