Moral Courage: The Legacy of the Bystander Nonintervention Experiments

Offered at his Festschrift on May 22, 2009

The bystander nonintervention experiments just blew my mind. 

Unlike most of you who learned about them in college or learned about them at the time they were first published, I entered graduate school in the fall of 1980 without a clue that such experiments existed, and certainly with no sense that something so daring as these experiments could even be attempted. 

I knew some psychophysics but I had taken no course in social psychology and yet had been persuaded it was to be my home based on a chance reading of an old handbook of social psychology published after the Kitty Genovese’s murder but before much of John’s work had been done.  Luckily for me, the Ohio State social psychology program wasn’t taking any chances with the riff-raff and had set up a 12 course sequence for the first year to be followed by a 12 course sequence the following year just in case I had missed something. 

In the very first quarter, I was to take something on group behavior.  Bibb Latane was the instructor, and the first week’s reading was a slim, 125 page book.  This is my copy of it, purchased in September 1980, a week before classes:  The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn’t He Help? It has neat pencil underlining and some really dumb comments in the margins.

Thirty years later, as I pulled it off the shelf and opened to the first page, the first day of that class came flooding back.  I had stayed up late the night before, just gawking as I turned the pages.   What do you mean you let loose “hippies, housewives, Jews, jocks, Negroes, Orientals, Europeans, Latin Americans, ROTC students, radicals, nurses, and models, as well as a few typical college students” into Manhattan to ask people for a dime or their name to see if they would help. That’s social psychology?  A far (and wonderful) cry from psychophysics, I’ll say. 

Nothing I read that in little book fit with what I had known.  The moral courage to assist somebody in distress didn’t have to do with how good a person one was?  The moral courage to intervene in an emergency didn’t have much to do with how your parents had raised you?  It didn’t matter that you attended church or not?  (That one I understood.)  Instead John Darley showed that it mattered whether there were 0, 1, or 2 people throwing frisbees in Central Park when you were asked to return it?  What do you mean they didn’t even see the smoke coming into the room when others were present?  And why would the same distress call of a child not sound authentic when there were others present but perfectly alarming when one was alone? The very perception of the meaning of that sound had shifted.  This was a socio-psycho-physical result and I could understand it if I assumed that I should regard it to be akin to Newtonian physics or astronomy where the laws that governed heavenly bodies may be applied to the less heavenly bodies here on earth. 

Having read the book, I went to class bug-eyed the next morning fully expecting that everybody else would also arrive in the same state of amazement. But that was not the case.  My classmates were savvy all-knowing home grown graduate students who already knew this stuff.   Within minutes of Latane starting the seminar, the long-haired boys and ex-marine girls who were my classmates took up the issue of the generic male pronoun in the title of the book and harangued Bibb about it.  It was, after all 1980, and we knew what the really important issues were.  So they challenged Bibb:  What sort of moral depravity had led Latane and Darley to the choice of that pronoun? Was Bibb sufficiently remorseful a decade later?  Could he assure the class that he would never ever again use the generic he? An hour into the seminar we were still stuck on male pronouns.

I, a whole week in a new country and worried that time was slipping away and I wasn’t learning anything in school, decided not to be a bystander.  I raised my hand tentatively and intervened. I said: “I think there might be something more important here than the generic he? Is it not remarkable that good people, ordinary people, can behave this way?” Bibb Latane seemed relieved at the opening, and off we went to a glorious semester and a great deal of new learning for me.

So, John Darley, you stood at my entryway into the magnificent world of social psychological experimentation.  Primacy effects being what they are, everything else I encountered was compared to your work on bystander nonintervention and if I am not easily impressed, who can blame me, given the standard for jaw droppiness that you had set.  

* * *

Twenty years later, I gave a lecture to the incoming class at Yale, on the first evening after their parents had deposited them and tearfully departed.  In my lecture, which was more pointed than a welcome lecture ought to have been, I told them that there are aspects of their minds of which they were unaware, that there were preferences they had of which they had no clue.  That if revealed, they would be troubled by them because their recognition of the thoughts and feelings they owned wouldn’t fit with their view of themselves.

Would they like to try a test?  How about race?

I wasn’t prepared for the tumultuous effect of 1500 people collectively taking the race IAT.  It was a difficult moment for us but many amazing conversations came out of it.  That night, a Black student, Aisha, who had been troubled by her own pattern of response on the test wrote me an email that kept me up much of the night.  It started with her saying, Professor Banaji, did it not matter that my parents hung Black Jesus’s in my bedroom; made sure I played with Black dolls?  Why could I not associate Black with good?  We met the next day, and I tried to explain what I knew about the power of circumstances that are greater than ourselves.  No matter what we think, it matters who is there and who isn’t, how many there are, and what these others are doing and saying.  We do not live in an equal world and our minds have incorporated this knowledge of who’s good and who’s not. What we do with this discovery is in our hands, but to move us toward action, we must first understand these sources of influence.

And I told her about the bystander studies.  Learning about these studies would we not act differently? Learning about what lies in our minds even when it is troubling, would we not act to change that state of affairs?  The moral courage to do so is what an education should provide in addition to everything else.

To me, the bystander studies always spoke to the question of moral courage, by showing its lapse.  Moral courage not just in the acts of Gandhi, or Mandela, or Aung San Suu Kyi who are icons of the term, but in the sense of the many small acts that make up a single, ordinary  day, and then a single, ordinary life.  It is not clear to me whether the need for moral courage is greater now than before given the greater complexity of intergroup relations globally.   But what is certain is the constant need for it:  Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the situation in Tibet and Burma, the financial corruption with its epicenter in Wall Street but spread everywhere, the conflict of interest that corrupts medical research and the treatment of patients.   

What is encouraging is the demand I see and hear for intervention in places where we would have previously hardly noticed the need for acts of moral courage.  Our moral compass is a finer instrument now than it was.  Our standards have changed for what constitutes wrongdoing and therefore what needs intervention.  As this change unfolds, what specific learning do we have from the bystander nonintervention work and what is its legacy? That’s what I’ve been asked to address.

The bystander work stands out for many of the same reasons all great experiments and discoveries do. It stands out because it was the first such demonstration and for that reason it will always be in the history books, no matter what comes after it.  The evidence it provided, alongside Milgram, for the banality of evil thesis is without peer.  The greatness of the work came from it being counter to intuition.  John Darley and Bibb Latane showed that it wasn’t the “unconscious sadistic impulses” or apathy that produced nonintervention as psychiatrists in NYC thought. Norms too were not helpful as explanations because norms contradict themselves. There are norms that point in both directions.  We must help others, but we must not meddle in the affairs of others. We must know when to take help from others and we must not accept help from others like strangers or those who may expect something in return.   Norms don’t offer much to the scientist they said and neither did norms serve as the cause of behavior. For all these reasons the bystander studies are the jewels they are.

But in thinking about the legacy of the bystander studies, I’d like to point to two other, less attended to features of its legacy.

Mental Model: Strange as this may see, the studies most identified with the candid camera genre of social psychology also provided a mental model.  Latane and Darley ask and answer: “What then, does cause a person to help in a given emergency? We think the answer lies in a process analysis of what a person must think and do if he is to help another”.   The “think” part is of interest to me because it was setting up the idea that the subject must develop some representation of the situation, an evaluation of it, an interpretation of the motives of the other, a theory of the other’s mind and a theory of the situation.   

If there were more people present, the bystander actually thought the situation posed a lesser threat.  This may sound simple but it is just remarkable if you take it to its logical end.  How are we to blame in the usual sense of blame, if the very understanding of whether help was needed or not is itself skewed based on the presence of others.   Is there anything that can be called “individual action”?  This is the moment that I point to when I ask myself when I became a social psychologist; when I realized that even the most unique aspect of the individual, the self, is socially constructed.  

A lack of awareness:  So much has been done and said over the last twenty five years on the question of unconscious mental processes.  It and related concepts of automaticity, intention, and self-reflection have been hammered on by philosophers, neuroscientist and psychologists of all stripes, myself included.  John’s work on bystander nonintervention showed forty years ago a dissociation between actual influence on behavior and perceived influence on behavior.  In the over dozen experiments, they asked their subjects if they had been influenced by the presence of others: “We asked this question every way we knew how: subtly, directly, tactfully, bluntly.  Always we got the same answer.  Subjects persistently claimed that their behavior was not influenced by the other people present.  This denial occurred in the face of results showing that the presence of others did inhibit helping.”

It was a similar desire that led me and my colleagues to find a way to persuade people that the stuff they denied they had in their heads actually existed and influenced their actions.  We have found very many people showing amazing openness in the face of evidence about themselves even when such information is disconcerting.  And yet, much in keeping with the discovery John made in the late 1960s, we find a funny kind of resistance, understandably from those who don’t know better, but also from those who should. 

For me the most significant legacy of the bystander studies is the idea that minds will be changed about the goodness and whether we are the people we want to be not by focusing on intuitive and individualistic notions of good and evil but rather by looking at things outside the self, and by attending to the systemic ways in which collectives shape individual behavior. It’s legacy is that it look such important issues for a society as altruism and grounded its study in experimentation. 

Let me end by saying something about the human being we honor today.

I am, unlike many of you, not John’s colleague at Princeton, John’s student, or even a collaborator.  But from that first semester in graduate school when I read his work, I have been an admirer.  And in the years since, having followed his work and his positions on so many issues, I have come to see John as a kindred spirit in deeper ways.  (And I don’t say this only because at a conference we were both at I matched John martini for martini; that, for anybody who knows John, is a very impressive feat on my part!)  

John, the term gentle giant suits you well.  You removed for me the stereotype much cultivated by men in every science that to be brilliant you must be an asshole or insane.  You provided me and many others with another model: that listening, encouraging, and even agreeing with a zany idea to see where it will go need not come at the expense of challenging, having high standards, and never being smug with what one has achieved. 

I salute you now, and will later again … with a martini in hand.