This is a true story.
Imagine that you are at a Wal-Mart around midnight. Dark parking lot. Little security and yet a number of random people wandering around. A man with a little boy thrown over his shoulder passes you. The little boy is screaming and kicking and crying and yelling for his mama.
The man slaps and spanks the boy and is telling him to shut up. He never uses the boy’s name. There is no woman near them and the man is moving faster. Also, imagine the boy is blond and the man has dark hair. Onlookers shake their heads but do nothing.
What would you do? Would you watch and not do anything? Or would you intervene? Social psychologists tell us there is a very good likelihood we will do nothing.
But this is the story of a woman, Pam, who did.
Pam asked the security to go check on the boy. The security man did, and then turned away. Pam asked the security guard what transpired. As she does the man screams at her: “The little shit is crying for his mother like a pansy-ass.”
“At that moment,” said Pam as she recalled her ordeal, “I forgot to be scared.”
The man shoved the boy into the back set of the car all the while cursing and screaming at him. He got in the car and backed up. Pam stood behind the car and blocked the man from going. She walked over to the driver, told him to roll down his window and then asked the boy if the man was his dad. The boy said nothing.
The man pushed Pam back from the window and threw open the door. He swore at her, stumbled and fell onto the car next to his. He was drunk. Very drunk. As this was happening Pam went over to the boy and asked again if the man was his dad. She tells him she knows he is very good at telling the truth, and that she is just there to see what is the matter for all those tears. The man is quiet and never moves but mutters something and then laughs.
Pam faces the man, apologizes for inconveniencing him and tells him she knows how unpredictable children who are tired can be. But given the circumstances she was pretty sure a good dad like him would want people to care that no child was being abducted in their presence. She said she hopes she is wrong in her suspicion.
Pam’s powerful display of courage, acting to help a victim while others are not responding is a correction for one of the most replicable effects in social psychology. The bystander effect, or Genovese syndrome, is the name given to the phenomenon where the presence of bystanders decreases the likelihood that someone will intervene. In fact, there is an inverse relationship between the number of witnesses and the likelihood someone will help: The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely someone is to respond.
Researchers John Darley and Bibb Latene were interested in the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City where witnesses to the murder did not respond. While there is controversy about the reports on the number of witnesses and their reasons for not responding, the newspaper reports of the murder and apathy inspired the researchers to conduct experiments to demonstrate the effect.
But there is more to Pam’s story than just speaking up.
Pam introduces herself to the boy and asks him again if the man is his dad. He nods and is able to tell her his daddy’s name. She then asks the man to show her his driver’s license. By then the security guard has returned to check the license, which is expired. The security guard hands the license back to the man and walks away.
He walks away.
Pam says in a very loud voice that she will be happy to wait until the police arrive so this little boy doesn’t have to drive in a car with a drunk driver who has an expired license. She then dials 911, asks the security guard to stay with her and she talks to the boy. The father is furious. He curses and kicks a can at Pam. It hits her in the shoulder and Pam is unmoved as she continues to talk to the boy, asking him about his mama. He tells Pam about her, his sister, and his grandpa.
When the police arrived Pam gave a statement and they arrested the man for public intoxication. Pam waited with the little boy, another policeman, and the security guard until the boy’s grandpa came to get him.
Pam has done more than challenge the bystander effect. She is an everyday hero. Research on the Genovese syndrome has resulted in three processes that are important for people to respond to others in distress. The first is to actually notice the situation. When there are many other people around we may narrow our awareness – so the first thing Pam did was realize something was happening with the man and the boy. In other words, she paid attention to her surroundings.
Second, those who respond interpret the situation as an emergency. Pam did this the moment she saw the boy being hit. The best response I have ever heard for an intervention came from a woman who witnessed another woman hit her child several times at a park. The witness told her to stop and the abusive parent said, “It is none of your business.” The woman who intervened said: “If you do this in public it makes it my business.”
Pam made it her business, which is the final point the researchers formulated. Once you notice, and interpret the situation as an emergency, then you finally take responsibility for helping.
This is an area Phil Zimbardo, another leading social psychologist, is studying: What it takes to be a hero. His latest endeavor involves fostering heroic imagination. He has noted that heroes are never going to conform to group norms and highlights the two core principles of heroism:
- Heroes act when others are passive.
- Heroes act sociocentrically, not egocentrically.
They act alone, and for the good of others. It also seems they don’t like to boast about their deeds. That is why we need to honor their stories and retell them when we hear about them. That is why Pam’s story appears here.
Dr. Zimbardo calls it Heroes in Waiting, and we need to be prepared. In his own words, we need to be “waiting for the right situation to come along, to put heroic imagination into action. Because it may only happen once in your life, and when you pass it by you’ll always know, I could have been a hero and I let it pass me by. So the point is thinking it and then doing it.”
Pam is an inspiration because she didn’t let her opportunity pass her by. I hope we can all do the same when it is our turn.