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Why People Don’t Help When They Can

As a therapist, I am a keen observer of human behavior and interactions. I have long been fascinated by what makes people tick. Sometimes I am in awe of the altruism and generosity I witness and sometimes shake my head in disappointment, when those who have the capacity to help don’t always. Then again, I freely admit my biases and judgements, so if this resonates with you, it is not meant to shame, but rather to call on a common humanity.

A few years ago, my friend Ondreah and I were on our way to an event at one of our favorite retreat centers called Mt. Eden, as I steered my Jeep into a gas station once we crossed the bridge that brought us from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. Anyone who lives in the Keystone State knows that the Garden State boasts gas prices that can be as much as 20 cents a gallon cheaper. As the attendant was pumping the gas (there are no self-serve gas stations there, hence the bumper sticker that reads “Jersey girls don’t pump their own gas.”), I noticed a bare-chested man wearing shorts, stumbling in the street and then collapsing. It was a scorchingly hot summer day, so his plight felt more immediate. I dialed 911 and described the scenario. I was transferred to a local dispatcher and once again described what I was witnessing playing out before my eyes.

By this point, the man had rounded the corner facing the bridge and literally stepped in front of a car that was stopped and draped himself across the hood and then slid back down to the street. Carrying the phone, I walked toward him and at the request of the police officer, I handed my phone to the bridge guard and I leaned down to speak with the man who identified himself and declared that he was drunk. I could hear a siren in the distance, heralding the arrival of help. Then, I walked back to the car and we were on our way.

A short while after we arrived at the gathering, I ran into someone I knew, and I described what had transpired. His response surprised me. He replied that it would have been ok either way — whether or not I chose to help. I was incredulous. I was taught by my parents that if someone was in need and you could help, it was your role to do so.

I remember many years ago, again at a gas station (I see a pattern developing here) in a rather dangerous neighborhood in Philadelphia, I witnessed someone being robbed. Back then, there weren’t cell phones, so I found a pay phone and called the police from there.

I believe that we are not responsible FOR each other, but rather, TO each other. We live on this island Earth together. How is it possible for someone to walk away if they are able to lend a hand? If I couldn’t intervene directly, I would always seek someone who could.

Remember Kitty Genovese? The following excerpt is from an article in the New York Times written by Martin Gansberg on March 27, 1964:

For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.

Twice their chatter and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out, and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.

The above reported events are true and took place on March 14, 1964.

The brutal murder of Kitty Genovese and the disturbing lack of action by her neighbors became emblematic in what many perceived as an evolving culture of violence and apathy in the United States. In fact, social scientists still debate the causes of what is now known as “the Genovese Syndrome.”

When witnesses were questioned about why they didn’t call the police, the answers ranged from thinking it was a lovers’ quarrel, to fear for their own safety, to simply not wanting to get involved.

Since then, it has come to light that the number was exaggerated. My take is that whether it was 38 or 8, it is our social responsibility to help if we can.

The truth is, I’m no hero and there were other people who eventually gathered around the man on the bridge and picked him up and got him to safety on the grass while awaiting the ambulance. I was glad to see that as well. We are all in this together and my choice will always be to exercise my social responsibility.

An experience that hits closer to home unfolded over the past few weeks. A college friend with whom I had shared an apartment in my 20s reached out to me. She found herself in dire straits and knowing that I have what I call my ‘social worker’s rolodex brain’ of resources, she contacted me as we brainstormed ways of helping her through it. I had many suggestions that one by one, she checked off as having already done them, and, sadly, she discovered that she fell through the cracks of the system. The next step was to set up a GoFundMe page to ask for financial assistance. We spent time crafting what I thought was a clear and powerful message:

As a professional woman in the health care field, I spent much of my life taking care of others. Now I find myself in the distressing position of needing help. 

It was a cascade of events that led me to my current situation. I am homeless and unemployed. I am using a walker to get around since being in a few accidents and the cumulative effect of lifting patients. I have attempted to utilize the social service system in Florida, to no avail. I am not eligible for them. I am also medically compromised and in pain.

I have been in touch with an organization that may be able to help me with permanent housing.

What I am asking for is some financial assistance to get me over the hump of living in my vehicle, until I can get something more stable.

I am grateful for whatever you can offer.

She requested what was not a huge amount of money and, with the number of people we both know, we imagined that the response would be filled easily and quickly. Not so. Three out of thousands of people donated to the campaign. I had sent money prior to creating the page. I consider what many frivolously spend money on without thinking twice. For the price of a cup of coffee and donut, if each person who saw it made a donation, she would be well taken care of. Although I can only be responsible to my own choices and can’t legislate anyone else’s conscience, I feel disappointed.

I asked her if she had contacted friends directly and she told me, “I spoke with a couple of people this week and the mirror effect may be happening here, it’s scary for people to acknowledge that someone on their tribe/circle is actually experiencing this.”

Call it the ‘mirror effect,’ or ‘bystander syndrome,’ by which people think the other person will help, my question is how to help people get past this and not use it as a reason to allow for suffering and struggling when the means to help are at our disposal.

When contemplating that query, I consider this song “What Must Be Done” by Brother Sun:

I learned as a child there are two ways to see,
the world as it is and the way it should be.
Some people say that’s just not my problem,
some people do what must be done.
They see the hole in the fabric that must be sewn.
They see the way blockaded and they roll back the stone.
They see the day beyond the horizon
and they do what must be done.

Why People Don’t Help When They Can


Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a journalist and interviewer, licensed social worker, interfaith minister, radio host and best-selling author. www.opti-mystical.com

APA Reference
Weinstein, E. (2019). Why People Don’t Help When They Can. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 1, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/why-people-dont-help-when-they-can/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 12 Nov 2019 (Originally: 14 Nov 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 12 Nov 2019
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.