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Why That 'Stuff' from Psych101 May Be Useful to Remember

A day ago there was a horrendous car accident that killed a mother and her three children. What made the story even more remarkable was the fact the driver had allegedly been caught on camera a few days earlier driving dangerously. In that earlier incident, an incredibly brave man jumped into the situation and tried to stop the driver from injuring or killing people. He is rightly being lauded as a hero. Part of that heroism is based on the fact that he overcame something called the 'bystander effect' or 'bystander apathy' and took direct action to stop a perceived danger when other people would have stood by.


What is the bystander effect? I'll defer to Psychology Today on that one:


"The bystander effect occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation, against a bully, or during an assault or other crime. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is for any one of them to provide help to a person in distress. People are more likely to take action in a crisis when there are few or no other witnesses present."


There are other situations in which it is well known that people will not act, even when they know a situation is wrong. One well known cognitive bias is called the 'conformity bias' and it comes from the work of a psychologist, Solomon Asch. In a series of experiments involving actors, Asch demonstrated that individuals discount their own beliefs and conform their opinions to those of groups and/or dominant others. The most famous of these experiments involved a task where participants were asked which line was longest in a room in which someone gave an obviously wrong answer. What did most people do? They adopted the same answer given by the actor they believed was another student*.


Another version of conformity bias is the phenomenon known as 'group think', and its cousin 'bandwagon' think. Both involve the activation of psychological desires to 'fit in' with a group's dynamic through conforming to group beliefs and actions.


Here's yet another one: Milgram's famous obedience to authority experiments, which famously demonstrated that individuals feel psychological pressure to follow the demands of those they see as authority figures.


Despite decades of scientific research into these and related social-psychological processes, I find it a subject of some despair that, when it comes to policing, the simple answer any time there is a controversy is to point to institutions, cultures and a host of assumptions and pseudo-science, when we have decades of really good and relevant science from which to draw upon.


Where am I going with this?


A lot of media and other discourse lately has been centered on policing and why police officers 'don't speak up' when they see or experience obvious wrongs. The stock answer is 'culture' and there is some truth to that. But it's also much more complicated. Social processes can also have an underlying biological or hard-wired element to them, which makes them more general rather than phenomenon unique to any one particular group or culture**.

Over the years, I can point to many, many examples in higher education where people knew things were going on and chose not to speak up, even though the choice not to act had significant harmful consequences for themselves or for others. In fact, we can see versions of the bystander and conformity effects in every single different type of institution and social sphere. This is why we have bravery awards, to recognize people who fought the urge to scream for someone else to help.


And yet if you asked us, we'd tell you that we would have jumped on the car to try to stop that dangerous driver. This is because most - if not all of us - also suffer another cognitive bias: the overconfidence effect. We tend to overestimate the extent to which we think we might make different -- ie. better -- choices in a given circumstance. Classic example: all of the GiJoes and Janes out there who will tell you that in a mass-shooting episode they will draw their weapon, charge up to the shooter and shoot to kill. Except that almost never happens. When faced with that kind of danger, they run for cover with the rest of us.


If you want to address the issue of 'failure to act' or 'failure to speak up' in any type of meaningful, enduring way in any institution, a good place to start might be cracking open those social psychology texts. You know, the ones you conveniently stashed in the basement for the next garage sale.


*Asch's famous line test

** I'm totally getting drummed out of Sociology for this take.

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