Friday, October 16, 2009

Collective, Third Party Charity....Fails

Today, on my audio book I heard a reference to one Kitty Genovese - a Queens woman who in 1964 was stabbed to death right in front of 38 witnesses - none of whom budged to call the police. (Though, that fount of accuracy Wikipedia now disputes some of the historical detail.)

Then, later this afternoon I opened a book, Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point and saw the same incident referenced as well. He writes:

Two New York City psychologists - Bibb Latane of Columbia University and John Darley of New York University - subsequently conducted a series of studies to try to understand what they dubbed the "bystander problem." They staged emergencies of one kind or another in different situations in order to see who would come and help. What they found, surprisingly, was that the one factor above all else that predicted helping behavior was how many witnesses there were to the event.

In one experiment, for example, Latane and Darley had a student alone in a single room stage an epileptic fit. When there was just one person next door, listening, that person rushed to the student's aid 85 percent of the time. But when subjects thought that there were four others also overhearing the seizure, they came to the student's aid only 31 percent of the time. In another experiment, people who saw smoke seeping out from under a doorway would report it 75 percent of the time when they were on their own, but the incident would only be reported 38 percent of the time when they were in a group. When people are in a group, in other words, responsibility for acting is diffused. They assume that someone else will make the call, or they assume that because no one else is acting, the apparent problem - the seizure-like sounds from the other room, the smoke from the door - isn't really a problem. In the case of Kitty Genovese, then, social psychologists like Latane and Darley argue, the lesson is not that no one called despite the fact that thirty-eight people heard her scream; it's that no one called because thirty-eight people heard her scream. Ironically, had she been attacked on a lonely street with just one witness, she might have lived.


So *collectives* don't act as humanely as individuals, right?

Laughingly, at least one of those researchers, Latane, seems by his political contributions to be an advocate for socialists. I'd bet the other one is as well!

Outliers was such a good book that I figured I had to read Gladwell's prior book as well - even though the critical reviews aren't as flattering.


Anonymous said...

In nursing, a management system known as “Shared Governance” is all the PC rage. I call it shared irresponsibility. Everything important dies in committee.

CaptiousNut said...

Gladwell's book asserts that as groups of any kind grow past the magical number of *150*, they become ineffective. He sources it with both clinical, historical, and present-day examples.

All of this seems intuitively true, but before reading it, the optimality of smallish groups wasn't so clear in my mind.

As for bureacracy and *committee*...

My wife can't stand dealing with off-site colleagues in her far-flung large financial company. She says that if people don't have to walk by you in the hall ever....that they are more inclined to blow you off, to be rude and uncooperative, etc.