Bystander Apathy in India– A Commonplace Phenomenon

Social Psychology talks about a phenomenon called ‘the bystander effect’. Bystander effect or bystander apathy is described as a phenomenon, in which individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when they see themselves in a crowd surrounded by other people. Diffusion of responsibility is seen to occur, as each individual remains largely inhibited to take a step forward due to presence of other individuals. Sadly, this effect is seen to characterize much of our Indian society and psyche today. Even though the number of attacks has increased in their intensity and gruesome nature, people remain mute spectators to the attacks and this mob mentality doesn’t seem to die out.

Today, this has become an everyday phenomenon in India, and its novelty now, solely lies in the kind of attacks that people are becoming mute spectators to. From the Indian epics to our very own lives, this bystander effect appears to trap everyone in almost every situation. Whether it was Draupadi’s insult in a courtroom full of men and women who were merely watching her being disrobed and being defiled by the man, or whether it is a victim of molestation, rape or acid attack on the streets, the bystanders do nothing.

Moreover, people’s consciousness as a community has only collapsed with the passing decade. It took the Nirbhaya case, for people to raise a voice against the perpetrators of rape, but even so, there lie restrictions to a loud opinion on social media. Even though some people manage to express bravely on the social media, their online presence screaming for justice, these prime advocates of change are let down. There is hardly any translation of the social media opinions into the real world.

A psychological research conducted by social psychologists, John M. Darley and Bibb Latané (1968) in a laboratory setting, revealed a witness count of 38 bystanders. This was done following the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964. In India, these numbers of silent spectators, half- perpetrators are large enough to be counted. In India, cases of open molestation, rape and attacks, range far too many in number. The most people do is record a video and make it viral for fruitless reasons, when instead they should take the first step forward. Only a few among the thousand people, perhaps, intervene in the form of directing calls to the police or in the form of offering physical help. However, most of the times even that call is delivered too late—such is the impact of the bystander effect.

But, it’s important to ask, what factors prevent people from coming forward to help?

The bystander effect seems to work in a way that everybody who is part of the crowd is comforted by the fact that there are others present who will offer help. Thus, all they do is, wait. They wait for someone else to take the lead until the person dies, gets raped or becomes an acid attack victim in the presence of so many people who form the very ‘society’ that promises to serve. Yet other times, even if some people introspect to help, they are driven back by an impending feeling of fear. Moreover, even if nobody steps forth, there is an underlying comfort for them in the fact that “it wasn’t just me.”

And all the time, there are variables given by Latané and Darley like emergency of the situation, ambiguity and consequences, understanding the environment, cohesiveness and group membership, cultural differences, priming the social context and the diffusion of responsibility which affect the bystander effect. These psychologists noted that during an emergency situation, the bystanders go through cognitive and behavioural processes where they first notice that something is going on. They then interpret the situation as being an emergency. However, the degree of responsibility is dependent on 3 things– whether or not they feel the person is deserving of help, the competence of the bystander, the relationship between the bystander and the victim. They then feel the need to assist, and thereby choose either of the two forms of assistance- direct intervention and detour intervention.
Finally, the bystanders make a decision on what they choose to act upon and how to implement it.

An article in the Times of India quotes Dr. Harish Shetty, a psychiatrist, who says, “We are taught from a very young age not to meddle in others’ affairs. It’s easy to sit in your drawing room and have conversations on standing up for what is right. But when it comes to helping someone who is not a part of your family or friends’ circle, people tend not to intervene. Taking a stand and rocking the boat is not a part of our psyche.”  The playwright, Alyque Padamsee makes statement along the same lines and states that the best way was to use wits rather than guts and unite as a group to call the police instead of taking law into their hands.

Whether it is a small brawl on the streets or an accident on the road, people carry their spectator mentality with them. Even when the ears are met with screams for help and the eyes see a helpless victim losing the last tinge of hope, these victims have to fight back as they expect help from the spectators. It should be each one of our endeavour to ensure safety in public spaces. In an ideal world, the bystanders would unite and punish attackers and stand up for fellow citizens. But then again, an ideal world would be devoid of crime. Instead of collectively taking a backseat, it is high time we collectively move forward and push past barriers that bring us down. The question however remains, are we ready for such a radical change?

Picture Courtesy- Rampages


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