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Op-Ed: Why do bystanders fail to intervene when they see others in pain?

People at anti-Asian hate press conference on Tuesday in New York.
People attend a news conference against anti-Asian violence Tuesday in New York, one day after a 65-year-old Asian American woman was violently attacked on a nearby sidewalk.
(Kena Betancur / AFP/Getty Images)

In the last week, we saw another horrific anti-Asian assault on video. A 65-year-old woman was walking to church in New York City when she was brutally attacked by a man on a street near Times Square. The assailant said, “You don’t belong here,” as he kicked her in the chest and stomped on her while she was on the ground.

The footage from an apartment building captured the vicious attack, allowing authorities to identify and arrest a suspect. The video also caught the behavior of security guards who witnessed the assault from inside the building. Stunningly, rather than intervening to help, one of the guards slowly walked toward the woman. Then he closed the door, leaving her alone on the sidewalk a few feet away.

Reacting on Twitter, Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, wrote, “I have seen similar scenes from history of bystanders who turned away. It is a sign of danger for our society… We need to understand, what did these security guards think they were securing in that moment?”

This is exactly the right question. We think part of the answer is about identity.

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Since the 1960s, social psychologists have been studying why bystanders fail to intervene when strangers need help. Among other factors, people are significantly more likely to assist victims if they believe that they share an identity — a common group membership — with them.

Crucially, it is not the identity of the person who needs help that matters but, rather, how potential helpers understand their own identity.

Some of this research was conducted in the competitive world of British soccer. Experiments by Mark Levine and colleagues at Lancaster University found that fans of the Manchester United club were more likely to help an injured stranger if he happened to be wearing a Manchester United shirt rather than the jersey of their arch-rivals, Liverpool.

This is unsurprising, perhaps. But it does not have to be this way.

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The researchers found that if Manchester fans had been reminded of their love for soccer more generally (instead of focusing on their narrow allegiance to Manchester United), they were then just as likely to help a distressed stranger in a Liverpool jersey as a supporter of their favorite team. These bystanders expanded their circle of care if they broadened their identity.

The point is that the same person who is an “other” to us through the lens of one identity can become “one of us” when viewed through another lens. Nothing about the person in need of help has changed; rather, it is how we see ourselves that makes the difference.

In the Minneapolis murder trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin, several bystanders who witnessed George Floyd’s death have described not only the events they observed but also the feelings of grief and guilt that have followed. When prosecutors asked Darnella Frazier, the young woman who recorded the widely-shared video of Floyd’s death, how it affected her life, she said, “It’s been nights I’ve stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more, and not physically interacting and not saving his life.”

“But,” she said in reference to Chauvin, “it’s not what I should have done, it’s what he should have done.”

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And it’s not just what Chauvin should have done, but also what the three other Minneapolis police officers should have done as they stood by for more than nine minutes while Floyd died under Chauvin’s knee. Why didn’t they intervene? As police officers, they had much greater capacity and responsibility to intercede than the civilian witnesses who are now plagued with grief and guilt.

The inaction of both the New York security guards and Chauvin’s fellow officers can be understood in terms of shared identities — and their absence. How did the security guards understand their identity as guardians in that moment? Who or what was within the circle of their protection, and why was the assault victim outside it?

Likewise, who did the Minneapolis officers think they were protecting in that moment? Not justice. Not public safety. But seemingly their solidarity as police, in opposition to an upset crowd of witnesses.

Social identities can cause us to extend altruism and care to people within our boundaries, but also to withhold our concern from people we think are on the outside. But these boundaries are not fixed. They are malleable. They can narrow, but they can also expand.

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Bystander intervention training programs often focus on how to recognize emergencies and how to respond. But helping is not just about knowing what to do. It starts with whom we identify with enough to want to help, especially in dangerous or frightening situations.

And when it comes to those whose jobs it is to keep us safe, we need people whose solidarity lies with something broader than the building they work at or the squad they’re on. This, too, is a matter of identity. Groups can adopt social norms of inclusive support, and it is the responsibility of institutional leaders to ensure that law enforcement and security personnel understand that an expansive concern for their fellow citizens of all races and identities must be central to who they are.

Dominic Packer is a professor of psychology at Lehigh University and Jay Van Bavel is an associate professor of psychology and neural science at New York University. They are authors of the forthcoming book “The Power of Us: Harnessing our shared identities to improve performance, increase cooperation, and promote social harmony.”


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