Standing up for ethical values takes courage. A police officer may courageously run into harm’s way because he or she is protecting life and property. Part of this courage will come from the duty of the job and to the community, but the rest comes from something far deeper as part of their character. Although most ethical dilemmas aren’t a matter of life and death, standing up to protect ethical standards can necessitate just as much courage, and be just as noble.
Simply being offended by ethical wrongdoing is not enough. Courage comes in taking action. It is about setting aside fear and acting for the common good of yourself and others. Ethics without the component of courage to take action, will keep it in the realm of the conceptual, rather than in actual practice.
Why would we be afraid of acting ethically though? Fear may be caused by knowing that our actions might face retribution, disapproval, or conflict. Fear may also be caused by simply not knowing what the outcome will be.
Apathy, however, may be one of the biggest reasons people don’t act when they see something ethically wrong. In fact, apathy can get worse when we are in a crowd of people—we actually are less likely to help others, or speak out against ethical transgressions when we are in groups. Though perplexing, this form of apathy, known as the “bystander effect,” is common.
The most frequently cited example of the bystander effect is the story of the brutal murder ofCatherine “Kitty” Genovese. On Friday, March 13, 1964, 28-year-old Genovese was returning home from work. As she approached her apartment entrance, she was attacked and stabbed by a man later identified as Winston Moseley.
Despite Genovese’s repeated calls for help, none of the dozen or so people in the nearby apartment building who heard her cries called police to report the incident. The attack first began at 3:20 AM, but it was not until 3:50 AM that someone first contacted police. While Genovese’s case has been subject to numerous misrepresentations and inaccuracies, it still serves as a parable to understand how the bystander effect can clearly have a powerful impact on social behavior.
Unfortunately, there have been numerous other cases. In 2015, a video capturing a sexual assault on a crowded Florida beach during Spring Break surfaced. The video was taken for unrelated reasons, but showed four men allegedly assaulting a woman who appeared to be unconscious. The woman did not remember the assault, but she recognized herself when reporters played the video on the news. She contacted the authorities, and told them she recalled drinking out of another person’s water bottle that day. It is likely the woman was drugged by contents in the drink and was then assaulted.
Why didn’t one of the hundreds of bystanders step in to help the victim?
Perhaps some bystanders didn’t realize that a sexual assault was happening, as many were drinking heavily themselves, clouding their ethical judgment. Social psychology, however, can offer two strong reasons to explain this bystander apathy.
First is called the “diffusion of responsibility.” This occurs when other people think that another person will intervene and, as a result, they feel less responsible. Because there are other observers, individuals do not feel as much pressure to take action, since the responsibility to take action is thought to be shared among all of those present. So if one person doesn’t take action, no one in the group will either.
The second explanation is called “pluralistic ignorance.” This refers to the mentality that since everyone else is not reacting to a situation, it must not be serious. The “wisdom of the crowd” notes the inaction of others and will draw the erroneous conclusion that everything is fine.
How can we help our students from falling into this trap of inaction?
Bystanders inevitably go through a process of understanding what they are witnessing. And at any point, they can decide to do something… or nothing.
When faced with a situation that requires action, understanding how apathy might be holding us back and consciously taking steps to overcome it, can break the cycle.