In October 2011, China was swept up in outrage after 10 minutes of horrifying footage from a security camera went viral on Sina Weibo. It showed a two year old toddler walking into the middle of a street in the Guangdong province, getting run over by a van, lying there bleeding as several pedestrians and cyclists passed her by, getting run over by a second van, being ignored by still more pedestrians and cyclists, and only getting help 10 minutes later when a 58 year old woman dropped what she was carrying and rushed to the child’s side.

Xiao Yueyue died a week later.

The Chinese authorities arrested the drivers of the vans, and started talking about “Good Samaritan” legislation. The Chinese newspapers lamented the coldness of the Chinese heart in its rabid pursuit for wealth.

But tragic as it is, the bystander reaction is not all that uncommon. It’s also not new, nor is it specifically chinese. The whole story sounds a lot like the classic example that gets talked about in reference to the bystander effect…

The Murder of Kitty Genovese

In the early hours of March 13, 1964, Kitty Genovese was walking back to her apartment in Queens, after parking her car 30 meters away from her apartment. She was approached by an assailant (Winston Moseley), and frightened, started running. Moseley caught up with her and stabbed her twice. She screamed for help (“Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!”), which many of her neighbours heard. One of them shouted at Moseley to “Let that girl alone”, at which point, Moseley ran away.

Kitty staggered toward a doorway.

Moseley then returned some time later, searched the area, found Kitty in the doorway, stabbed her several more times and then raped her. Eventually, after 30 minutes of this all happening, someone called the police and Kitty was taken away in an ambulance, and passed away en route to the hospital.

According to the subsequent New York Times article that “went viral” (as these things went in the 1960s), 38 witnesses heard and/or observed this happening. According to the official police reports, it was only about 12 people. But the question, as in the China case, remained the same: how come no one did anything about it?

Of course, it would be easy to declare that New Yorkers are heartless and morally bankrupt. But that would be too easy.

This incident inspired the classic experiments of John Darley and Bibb Latané to investigate the impact of group size on action.

The Smoking Room Experiment

The experiment went as follows:

  1. The experiment subjects (volunteer Columbia students) were placed in a room and asked to complete a questionnaire until the experimenter returned.
  2. Half the participants were placed in the room on their own; the other half were joined by two or three strangers (actually actors).
  3. Smoke was then pumped into the room from under a door, simulating conditions of a possible fire.
  4. The participants were timed to see how quickly they would notice that there was a problem, as well as respond to it.

The results:

  • Almost immediately, the solo participants in the room were up and checking to see what the problem was.
  • It took the group participants around 20 seconds to even notice that there was smoke.
  • Only one group participant (there were 8 participants that underwent the experiment in the company of two/three “strangers”) reported the smoke in the first four minutes.
  • And despite the fact that there was so much smoke in the room that people had started choking and it was thick enough to obscure vision, 5 out of the 8 participants had not reported the smoke before the experimenter called the experiment to a halt.

The general conclusion: in a group setting, people experience a diffusion of responsibility (“someone else must surely be taking care of it…”). And because we’re mostly lemmings, we’re more likely to assume that if no one else is panicking, then it can’t be serious.

And this effect has been continuously replicated in experiments since – and as yet, nothing has changed.

What This Means In The Office

Because I have to draw it back to the goings-on in the workplace, I’ll say this:

  1. The people that are in the office every day are usually aware of what is a problem, who is a bad worker, and when it’s all close to hitting the fan.
  2. However.
  3. All of those people will generally just assume that someone in charge knows that it’s happening.
  4. And then get angry that no one is doing anything about it.

That’s not helpful. What would be helpful is if someone said something. Also, from a management perspective: this is the reason that you have staff meetings.

To keep it personal, it possibly works the same way with pay increase negotiations (it’s that time of year, after all). We, as employees, expect that someone in the group should notice us and our value-add and then reward us appropriately.

Uh no. Usually, you have to ask for it.

Use it, don’t use it.