Why Didn’t Someone Stop Derek Chauvin?

Why Didn’t Someone Stop Derek Chauvin?

Jim Windell

           If you witness a troubling situation, will you get involved?

           What determines whether you will intervene in a situation, say, for instance, an assault, a robbery or someone bullying someone else?

           Perhaps we would all like to think that if we saw someone being attacked or in trouble that we would jump in and help. But would we?

           Certainly, several people watched Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneel on George Floyd’s death while he slowly died. But not none physically tried to stop Chauvin. Why didn’t anyone – the citizens bystanders or the other police officers – come to Floyd’s aid? What stopped anyone from saving him?

           Those are questions that have been asked following the George Floyd murder, but they have also been asked many times since the assault and murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York in 1964. Why didn’t someone help Kitty as she was being assaulted and crying out for help?

           Wayne Eastman, professor in the Department of Supply Chain Management at Rutgers University has an answer. Eastman’s major field of research is the application of psychology and game theory to ethics. In a recent article in The Conversation, an online opinion website, Eastman says that bystanders’ failure to intervene and stop Chauvin reflects two relevant points. One, a witness to a troubling situation who is in a group may feel a lesser sense of personal responsibility than a single individual. And two, someone in a group of people who can see one another may nonetheless feel responsible to act.

           All of this has to do with the “bystander effect.” This refers to the diminished personal responsibility that people in a group feel. This phenomenon was first described following the front page stories in 1964 related to the Kitty Genovese murder. The headlines at the time stated that 37 people heard or witnessed the assault of the woman and no one went to her rescue. Although there have been found to be several significant errors in the story that was reported at the time, still the event motivated social psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley to study the phenomenon and write a 1970 book titled “The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn’t He Help?”  Latané and Darley attributed the bystander effect to two factors: diffusion of responsibility and social influence. They made the point in diffusion of responsibility that the more onlookers there are, the less personal responsibility individuals will feel to take action. Also, they said that social influence plays a part in that individuals monitor the behavior of those around them to determine how to act. Subsequent studies have confirmed that people are more likely to act when they feel they have the sole responsibility to do so.

           Professor Eastman writes that the bystander effect has been reformulated by game theorists as the “volunteer’s dilemma.” In the volunteer’s dilemma, a person, or a group of people, will avoid discomfort if any one of them takes a pro-social action with a small cost. In the George Floyd situation, if anyone of the bystanders had come to Floyd’s aid by pulling Chauvin away from Floyd or by offering Floyd first aid, they would have all felt much better.

           On the other hand, if Chauvin was the only officer there and if only one bystander was observing, the chances are much more likely that that bystander would have taken action. People in a crowd hope someone else takes action, but for the lone individual the responsibility rests solely with them.

           There is more recent research, however, to explain the fact that some bystanders during the Floyd murder did verbally tell Chauvin to stop while others recorded videos on their phone. A relative line of research suggests that having more witnesses increases rather than decreases the chance someone will intervene and that actually pro-social intervention by some in a group is the norm – rather than the exception. A 2019 article by psychologist Richard Philpot and others at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom found that the more witnesses to a public conflict, the more likely someone will get involved and that intervention is a norm. Their research was done in real situations – and did not rely on laboratory experiments. Philpot and his colleagues concluded that in a majority of conflicts at least one person did something to help.

           It is true, apparently, that diffusion of responsibility remains an important aspect of bystander behavior. Yet, it is encouraging to know that pro-social intervention in public conflicts is quite common.

           To read the original article, click here.


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