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Friday, January 4, 2013

Choice or obligation?

In an article We Are All Bystanders found in the book The Compassionate Instinct, the authors Dacher Keltner and Jason Marsh, explore the research on bystander behavior.  They try to answer the question: Why do some people help others in a time of need while others remain passive?   There are several factors that come into play:

The diffusion of responsibility
When people felt that there are other people around who could respond to the situation,  they feel less personal responsibility.   In schools, since there are so many adults around, it is not surprisingly that students think that it is the adults’ job to respond to bullying situations.

The confusion of responsibility
Bystanders fail to help because they don’t want to be mistaken for the cause of the problem, or accused of being part of the problem.

Pluralistic ignorance
This is the tendency to mistake one person’s calm demeanor as a sign that there is no serious problem going on.  They give the example of people sitting in a waiting room who see smoke.  If other people seem unalarmed they will also keep sitting, while if they see others looking alarmed they will be alarmed.  In many cases of bullying sometimes even the target of the bullying can appear unbothered by it, so  a bystander could easily think that no harm was being done.

Details of a situation
People who were running late to a meeting were more likely to ignore someone in distress than people who had more time.

Similarity of the person in need 
People are more likely to help people that they perceive to be similar to themselves.  One of the activities of the Peaceful School Bus is for the kids on the bus to discover that they all have in common.  People can appear to be different but it can often only take a few minutes to discover commonalities.

Alone versus in pairs
Bystanders were more likely to help when they were in pairs than when alone.  They are more likely to talk about the situation and how they feel about it and then decide together to take action.  Not safety in numbers but safety in two rather than one.

Presence of absence of strong community
A common trait of someone who typically help others is that they have a strong sense of “shared humanity”.  When there are strong bonds within a community, people view helping as an obligation and not a choice.

Relevant skills for helping
People often help or don’t help depending upon their confidence level in doing what needs to be done to help others.  Some people may want to help but don’t feel that they will not be able to do anything to stop the bullying.  The person who bullies is socially more adept and has greater social support than the bystander.  Kids need concrete skills and/or words to use that they have rehearsed prior to the bullying situation.  In the book Switch this is called "Scripting the critical moves".  In any ambiguous situation, people are more likely to act if they have a simple, clear cut script to follow (they don't have to think too much on the spot). If they don't,  then they tend to revert to previous ways of acting.

The encouraging news about this research is that there is often just a fine line between those bystanders that help or not help.  Although some people may have an upbringing that supports certain attitudes and skills, those without that type of background can learn to be more active and helpful.  Here are some suggestions made in the article:

Give people opportunities to talk about their feelings
Since people can be “trapped” inside their feelings especially feelings related to fear, the simple act of discussing them with others and finding that these feelings are normal, can often help people take action in the future.  When students find out that most students don’t approve of bullying rather than mistakenly assume the opposite, they are more likely to intervene or report bullying.  The tendency to go along with the crowd can be directed in the right direction.

Teach people about bystander behavior
When people learn about why people help or don't help, i.e. exposed to the research on bystander behavior, they are more likely to overcome the inhibiting factors.  By educating people about what is going on inside of them, they can be better prepared when they are faced with situations that trigger those feelings.

All of this research shows that if we direct our efforts in the right place, we can have greater success in empowering bystanders.  Underlining all of this research, is the notion of identity.  How we identity ourselves to ourselves, will strongly influence how we act.  If I view myself as a caring, generous person I am more likely to act that way.  In the case of children, how we as adults identity them strongly influences how they identify themselves.  This is why is it so essential that we examine the hidden messages that the environment/culture sends to students.  If we think that kids need to be tightly controlled and regulated (need to be rewarded to insure positive behavior), they will identity themselves as people who need to be told what to do. This “identity” sadly reinforces all of the reasons why bystanders don’t act.  We need to provide an environment that sends the right message to kids: they are caring people who can take initiative, try things even when they are unsure.  They can listen to their consciences and do the right thing not as a choice but as an obligation.

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