Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Someone Else Will Help the Victim--Right?


The police officer who called my daughter to tell her that she had saved a man's life a week ago by calling 9-1-1, asked her, "So what made you call? You were the only one who called, you know."

"The only one?" she asked, horrified, since she lives in one of many street-facing condominiums in her building, all of which would have had equal exposure to the sound of the attack outside their building. She couldn't imagine, she told him, that she was the only one who heard the screams and the snarling dog. Then she explained that though for a moment she considered that the sound could be someone filming a movie (she does live in LA, after all), she couldn't take the chance of NOT calling when she heard a man desperately calling for help over the terrifying growls. Even if the screams were from an actor, the worst that could happen by her calling would be that the police would have raced over for a false alarm. In fact, the worst that could happen--the man dying--did NOT happen because of her call.

She recalled, for the officer, a term she had learned in a psychology class,"diffusion of responsibility," which refers to the mentality that makes people react to another person's trouble with the attitude, "Someone probably already called, so I don't have to." It's the same attitude that makes people stand around while someone else gets bullied, all looking to each other to stand up for the victim, instead of doing so themselves. My daughter said she would never want to be one of those people who doesn't help. The officer with whom she was speaking was probably surprised to hear such a memorable reply from a 19-year-old.

I was surprised, too. I was surprised to relearn a term I had forgotten from my college psych class in such a hard-hitting, real-life application of jargon. I used to make fun of all the fancy terms for social and psychological behaviors, thinking that most people seemed more caught up in the jargon than in understanding the actual actions it described. I never considered that having a phrase to describe such shocking behavior would benefit the person unfortunate enough to see its practical application. The ability to name this problem somehow might make it a less painful realization, I think--perhaps because the fact that the problem has a name means that other active bystanders have shared the miserable disappointment of having no back-up from other bystanders. Misery needs company, right? What was memorable in theory--"diffusion of responsibility"--now is more memorable because she experienced it. And the memory is haunting.

Learning that her call had saved a man from bleeding to death after a dog attack, my daughter felt simultaneously proud and disgusted, she told me. Proud because she had responded rapidly to a fellow human's cry for help, and disgusted because NO ONE ELSE IN ANY OF THE STREET-FACING APARTMENTS had called. No one! She wondered, "What if I had been screaming out there? I could never count on these neighbors! There's no way that no one else heard him, if I heard him over my TV and had to turn down the volume to be sure I wasn't just hearing screams on 'Breaking Bad.'"

"Diffusion of responsibility" described in a textbook obviously had stayed in her memory. Showing it, here with her story, makes that term indelible and its lesson more hard-hitting: that NO ONE SHOULD STAND IDLY BY WHEN WITNESSING, OR OVERHEARING, WHAT MIGHT BE A FELLOW HUMAN'S WORST NIGHTMARE.