The Bystander Effect

When I look over, the man’s hand is already stuck, locked at the wrist between the subway doors.

At first, I just see the hand, like I’m looking at it through a telescope. It looks foreign and it takes a moment for me to realize that it’s a hand, alone, by itself, I guess, because I’m not used to seeing one disembodied. My gaze rises and through the glass, I can see the hand is attached to a raggedy man. He has a beard and torn clothing. He is black. He is unshowered and unshaven. His right hand is on the inside of the train. His body is on the outside.

I blink.

Then, I look around. The train, an A uptown local, is pretty full even though it’s approaching midnight. Everyone has a seat and there’s room for people to stand comfortably. No one is looking at the man and his hand.

“Help!” the caught man yells, but it’s weak. About a dozen riders near by hear it though because they slightly turn their heads. I can see clearly that he’s homeless, but because of his almost non-reaction to his own danger, it strikes me that it’s also possible he is mentally ill: He realizes his hand is caught, but he seems to lack the necessary panic to know he’s in more than passing trouble. “Help!” he says, again. It’s quieter, but still not that desperate. The train is still silent.

I edge forward on my seat. It’s been a long three minutes and the doors have not opened to release the man’s hand. Maybe the conductor doesn’t know what’s happening.

Open, in my lap, is a comic book by sociopolitical commentator Warren Ellis, one that illustrates the grime and crime of a futuristic dystopian city. The protagonist is an eccentric journalist who regularly serves as a lone vigilante. Like Rorschach from ‘Watchmen,’ he opines on the dark, filthy aspects of humanity, lamenting the dead eyes of city dwellers. It’s a sort of, “My city screams in the night” aesthetic. It’s a cliché in graphic novels.

The caught man calls out again. My heart starts to pound. I shove my book in my bag and stand up.

“He’s stuck!” I yell. “His hand is stuck!” I’m met with silence and confused stares.

The train lurches forward a bit and I’m terrified. It’s going to start moving! Then, it stops.

I imagine what’ll happen when we move: the train will probably drag the guy down the platform for a few seconds by the arm until we hit the concrete tunnel wall. Then, his body will either be smashed between the train and the tunnel, crunching his bones flat, or his wrist will snap, leaving his body on the platform and our subway car with a bleeding shoddily-severed hand for a passenger. There’s a possibility the impact and dragging could kill this man too.

My vision swims. I walk to the middle of the train. “Someone get the conductor! Can you guys see the conductor? Is there a button or — his hand is stuck! Can someone get the conductor?!”

The eyes that meet mine convey one thought: Why is this crazy woman yelling?

“Okay, I’m gonna go head up and get the conductor to open –” I scream, when the doors suddenly do open. The whole ordeal took about ten minutes. The guy’s okay and he doesn’t thank me. For some reason, I’m embarrassed for “bothering” all these people on their rides home.

I sit down. I go to re-open my comic book and I realize I’m shaking.

“i’m all messed up about it,” I later type to a friend on Facebook chat. “i get it. bystander effect, but damn. he would’ve died and they all were looking at me like i was crazy to react.”

“stupid new york,” he simply writes back. Maybe.

“The bystander effect” is a classic psychological term, coined in New York, after all. I remember an old college journalism professor trying to freak us freshmen out by telling us the story: a young woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death and raped near her apartment building. She screamed for help and no one who heard her called the police.

It was a cold night in 1964. One neighbor leaned out his window and yelled, “Leave that girl alone!” That was it.

The New York Times article had the damning, legendary headline: “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.”

“I didn’t want to get involved,” a neighbor was quoted as saying.

A few years ago, a study showed the number of witnesses may have been exaggerated because the layout of the building was such that all 38 people could not have seen the entire attack, but in the end, enough people heard something — and did nothing.

Harlan Ellison called them all “mother-ckers” in an article for Rolling Stone. I think that explanation is too easy to fit such a large number of bystanders. My friend Jason suggests that maybe people didn’t react or help because the man in my story was clearly homeless. Maybe they thought he didn’t matter. What if it was my hand — that of a young white woman — that’d gotten caught? Would the conductor have noticed faster? Would people have responded with concern? Would Nancy Grace have been called? I consider it. One study on Kitty Genovese’s case suggested no one helped her because in the early ‘60s, people were afraid to intervene in what they could have mistakenly thought was a domestic dispute. No one wants to make a fuss and be wrong.

In short: Don’t get involved if the danger meets the status quo. A woman screaming for help is probably just fighting with her boyfriend. A mentally ill person stuck in the train doors will probably be released by the conductor. Don’t the conductors have mirrors so they can see the doors? We don’t need to help. Seconds tick by. Minutes.

Someone will do their job. Someone else will help. I don’t have to get involved.

When I leave the train station, my cheeks are red from riding eight more stops with people staring at me for reacting. Everything outside is wet from the rain and it’s very late. I walk home in the dark, the way Kitty Genovese did in 1964. The two events are hardly comparable. In one, a woman died and in another, a homeless man was once again ignored and a twenty-something was startled out of her commuting stupor. Nothing to see here.

When I get home, I strip my clothes off and wrap myself in my comforter. I am grateful. For hours my eyes are wide open, pointed up at the ceiling. I try not to vomit. TC mark

image – Randy Pertiet


More From Thought Catalog

  • Michael Koh

    that’s why people don’t get involved… you did a good thing. shows that someone still cares for humanity in all of its glorious evil

    • Anonymous

      And I’m basically the most negative person on the planet so I’m not looking to seem…better than anyone on that train or like I have more care for human life. I’m sure they’re all good people (statistically, it’d be weird if it was a whole train full of evil jerks). I was just so, as I said, confused by what happened and “messed up” about it.

      • Jordana Bevan

        I find that (generally) people who qualify themselves as negative or misanthropic are much more compassionate than those who don’t have the same…. self-deprecative (maybe?) understanding of themselves. I, too, find myself acting when others stand by, and I, too, see myself as negative/humanity-hating. I called the police the other day because there was a downed power line in the middle of the street – there were six other cars already there and no one had called the cops about it and everyone was standing next to the line (seriously??? SERIOUSLY??) just staring at it. Not the same situation, but like… yeah.I think intelligence (or, you know… whatever) gives rise to a greater awareness of self IN the community (rather than self as part of the community) and that in turn removes the self from the community mindset and leads to action when the bystander effect calls for inaction. But wtf do i know?? probs just justifyin my little existence away. gotta tell you though, was absolutely terrified reading the first part of this – thank you, thank you, thank you for doing and saying something. you know, we love to hate on people who react to the possibility of something and whatever that thing was doesn’t happen (like when the south shit all over New York and above for preparing for the lil hurricane this summer). Idk. Be proud dude, imagine how you would have felt if you didn’t say something and the train started moving

      • Anonymous

        This comment was really, really insightful. Wow. Thank you. I love that you say this totally brilliant thing and then go, “what do I know?” Dude: A LOT, apparently.

      • Anonymous

        you rule jordana — where ya been?

      • Jordana Bevan

        same place as you – hiding under my lellow scarf NOT WRITING AWESOME THINGS FOR TC (COUGH COUGH COUGH COUGH)

  • Rishtopher

    We live in a sad world.

  • Dave P

    I was just following orders.

  • Guest

    We just studied the bystander effect in my social psychology class and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Good for you for saying something! Studies have shown that the more people know about the bystander effect, the less susceptible they are to it; maybe that helps explain why no one else reacted? Fantastic article – made me think!

  • Rianadg

    thank you for writing this. for being another person who thinks this way. for writing something so important. i would have screamed to help him too. this was so hard to read but so important

  • Sophia

    This is so sad. I’m glad you did something; it gives me a little bit of faith in humanity.

  • Anonymous

    I wish, when I write, that Gaby Dunn will come out.

    It’s neat that it does for you.

  • Guest

    so glad you said something & reacted. as for feeling embarrassed / having cheeks flushed due to reacting, I think everyone else there should be the ones to feel embarrassed over their lack of reaction. 

    • Anonymous

      Thanks. I knew that mentally – and I know that now – but in context, it seemed like I should be ashamed for reacting.

  • Jherin

    i just wanted to let you know this article moved me to tears. I too am no stranger to the bystander effect. Just the other day on the C train i witnessed someone get their forearm stuck attempting to jump into the closing doors. Only i was the one who did nothing. I just sat there in my stupor watching until what seemed like moments (but was probably only seconds) the doors reopened. Only when reflecting on it afterward did i realize how much it bothered me that i didn’t help… and now only a few days later i see this here. Im taking it as a sign. 

    • Anonymous

      Oh, thank you. I think you were probably just shocked. It helps me actually, to hear why someone wouldn’t move.

  • ASchlenger

    It all comes down to doing the right thing. In New York their is a pervading culture that says “it’s ok” to ignore anyone or anything around you. I believe that this stems from the fact that the city is so densely populated and their is very little personal space, it’s why we don’t make eye contact and are constantly distrustful of the people around us. Its not that New Yorkers don’t care about other people, I believe that this type of situation facilitates a sort of passing of the buck. People don’t react because they assume someone like you will. I wonder if this kind of culture is primary to the urban space or is something that happens in places that are less densely populated.

    Living in NY this past summer I had many interesting subway experiences. One of which that comes to mind in relation to this story, is the time that I saw other passengers forcibly remove a passenger who was blocking the doors from closing. It was rush hour, everyone is leaving chelsea, its a hot summer day and this asshole is holding up the train because he is trying to hold the car for someone. The announcements start playing that they are waiting for a policeman to remove him from the doorway etc. etc. People start to get pissed and after a couple of minutes pass, three guys who seemingly didn’t know each other huddle up and decide to take action. They walk over to the guy and give him a nice shove out of the doorway, as he brushes himself off and gets up the doors close and the train rolls away like nothing happened.

    I believe in this situation people react because it serves their best interest. In a place like New York I feel like the clutter and rapid pace at which people are going about their business shapes a type of behavior that is one of survival and self interest. 

  • Ellen

    There was an event in China a few months ago (I’m studying abroad here and it’s all anyone could talk about) where a little girl (2 years old I believe) was run over by 2 cars and no one stopped to help her. Something like 18 people walked past an adorable toddler who was now fighting for her life, and didn’t do anything. Finally, a garbage picker (a person, in this instance a woman, who collects plastic bottles from the garbage for a living – it’s very common) noticed and picked her up. This woman has been offered lots of money as a reward for helping, which I’m sure would prevent her from having to pick through garbage for the rest of her life, but instead she’s giving it to the child. I think that it takes people who have suffered to notice when something bad is happening, and react to it. People who have never suffered like to pretend like there’s nothing wrong, as it will shatter their fragile little world. But I congratulate you on reacting. I’d like to think that I would have, but who knows until you get into that situation.

  • World Citizen

    You were just being human. Which is a terrible thing these days, and pretty rare.
    Two year ago I was a freshman at uni, and a girl was beaten-up by her boyfriend IN the class, we were about 200 students there, no one moved. It was incredibly violent but still, no one cared.Now I’m about to graduate from university, I don’t have any friend because I like to hang out with homeless people from time to time ( it happens that I like them more than students ), and when other students see me sitting on the floor, with some ‘beggars’ they are laughing their arse off then I can hear them at uni ‘ man she’s a bloody tramp’. ” it’s ok ” is an international creed, I live in France, in a small town and still, no one cares about anything.  And it’s not getting better.  But who am I to blame anyone or anything.’Whatever happened to the fairness in equality
    Instead in spreading love we spreading animosity’ ( Yeah I just quote the Black Eyed Peas, but guys listen to ‘where is the love?’ and go spend your day in the street ). 

    • Anonymous

      Thank you. It’s been helpful to hear from other people on this.

  • Oliver Miller

     Hey, that’s me in the IM chat!  I feel all famous now.  Also, the Rorschach thing is semi-ironic — yeah, I just misused “ironic” — since in the comics he was inspired by the Kitty Genovese case.  Or maybe you knew that.

    • Anonymous

      I did know that! Also, I didn’t want to out our convos but since you outed me all over your Game piece, I guess now everything I write will just include comments from Oliver Miller so…

  • rosie

    I once caught my entire leg in a tilt-a-whirl at a carnival and watched as the operator was about to turn the  ride. I was so scared I couldn’t really say anything more “help”..pretty softly. It was terrifying. Not saying he wasn’t mentally ill, and whether I am mentally ill is probably up for debate. But seriously, knowing that your limb is possibly about to be ripped off is a pretty jarring experience, and you would think that you would just stand there and scream but… can’t. Someone helped me by the way! I still have a leg, which is awesome.

    • Anonymous

      That’s an interesting thought too. There were other clues he wasn’t quite right in the head, but you’re right. Could be he was too shocked to react to his own situation.

  • Benjy

    This was tense, and well written. I like you.

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  • Nick

    The bystander effect makes sense when it means that most people are thinking “oh, well someone else will do something to help”.  In this situation, however, it is clear that no one was doing anything to help. Pretty sad.

     It’s situations like these that make me glad I grew up in a small town. I can imagine a similar situation occuring there and there is no doubt in my mind that every single person present would be stampeding over each other to help the man regardless of whether or not he was homeless or mentall ill.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you, Mike! Great work.

  • tori

    You’re a very morally sound person which is really hard to find in this day and age.

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