Dwyer Gunn writes: Bethesda in the state of Maryland is the kind of safe, upscale Washington DC suburb that well-educated, high-earning professionals retreat to when it’s time to raise a family. Some 80 per cent of the city’s adult residents have college degrees. Bethesda’s posh Bradley Manor-Longwood neighbourhood was recently ranked the second richest in the country. And yet, on 11 March 2011, a young woman was brutally murdered by a fellow employee at a local Lululemon store (where yoga pants retail for about $100 each). Two employees of the Apple store next door heard the murder as it occurred, debated, and ultimately decided not to call the police.
If the attack had occurred in poor, crowded, crime-ridden Rio de Janeiro, the outcome might have been different: in one series of experiments, researchers found bystanders in the Brazilian city to be extraordinarily helpful, stepping in to offer a hand to a blind person and aiding a stranger who dropped a pen nearly 100 per cent of the time. This apparent paradox reflects a nuanced understanding of ‘bystander apathy’, the term coined by the US psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané in the 1960s to describe the puzzling, and often horrifying, inaction of witnesses to intervene in violent crimes or other tragedies.
The phenomenon first received widespread attention in 1964, when the New York bar manager Kitty Genovese was sexually assaulted and murdered outside her apartment building in the borough of Queens. Media coverage focused on the alleged inaction of her neighbours – The New York Times’s defining story opened with the chilling assertion that: ‘For more than half an hour, 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks.’ Over the years, that media account has been largely debunked, but the incident served to establish a narrative that persists today: society has changed irrevocably for the worse, and the days of neighbour helping neighbour are a nicety of the past. True or not, the Genovese story became a cultural meme for callousness and man’s inhumanity to man, a trend said to signify our modern age.
It also launched a whole new field of study. [Continue reading…]