Crowd Psychology in the City

A year and a half ago, I did something really stupid. I went out on a 101 °F day without properly hydrating. In fact, I hadn’t had a thing to drink all morning.  Oh, and to make matters much worse, I’d had wisdom teeth surgery the day before.

About 30 minutes into my outing I felt myself getting weak inside the post office, and then, with my head spinning, I starting racing back to my apartment a half mile away. I woke up on the sidewalk with my chin split open. I was surrounded by a crowd. Before I’d had a chance to assess what was happening, a homeless man was dragging me by the hand into a realty office. Inside, a worried office worker shoved water into my hand, gave me tissues for my chin and proceeded to call 911 before I’d had a chance to say a word.

Just as there were those who sprung into action, there were others who looked concerned but didn’t know quite what to do. I’ve admittedly been this person. This inaction is often referred to as the bystander effect, and it’s inversely related to the number of bystanders present. The more people there are who can help, the less likely anyone is to do something. People often look to others to see how concerned they should be and assume there are those who are more qualified to assist. It’s not necessarily a moral failing or a sign of value-deprived end times, it’s a psychologist-observed phenomenon that’s been proven via multiple experiments and across various cultures.

And while New York City is often held up as an example of the heartlessness of the metropolis, the place where 38 witnesses overheard a woman in distress but did nothing, people do help, and they help a lot, even if some are indifferent or would rather not get involved. This is the place that coined the termsubway hero,” after all.

On a trip to the city during college, a friend and I, tired and loaded down with luggage, saw a man stumble, pass out and fall onto the subway tracks. It was late, after 10 p.m. And while we were both paralyzed with fear, a tall man in a long coat appeared as though a super hero from behind a pillar. “I’m a doctor,” he yelled, as he and a few others jumped onto the tracks and lifted the unconscious man safely onto the platform.

Even when there aren’t those in the crowd who are psychologically wired to take immediate action, many try to help in their own way.

Last week, a woman started fainting in her boyfriend’s arms while on a moving subway train. At first, people weren’t sure what was happening, especially since the boyfriend didn’t show any signs of concern. Soon, two or so people ran over to help sit her down as many others vacated their seats in order to give her space. And while it’s true that half the passengers pretended nothing was happening, there were those who were concerned, but hesitant about how to proceed. I imagine some were also giving the couple the benefit of not being gawked at. My own thought was: “I wish I had water.” I then started eyeing every single person on the train, to see if they had water I could pilfer for this woman. And just at that moment, she came to, as if nothing had happened. The whole thing probably lasted less than 60 seconds. I imagine others were also wracking their brains for ways to help.

It’s a weird (some would say unnatural) sort of dynamic–being surrounded by strangers every single day and having them be the ones who would come to your aid in a time of need. I recently observed the tail end of a situation where a 30-something man, who’d fainted and was helped by a small crowd, sprint from the train without a thank you or even a cursory head nod. It seems overly simplistic to judge his actions as ungrateful. He was placed in a unique situation. As someone who probably felt at his healthy prime, he wasn’t prepared to feel so intensely vulnerable in front of total strangers. He wasn’t sure how to deal, which to me, seems all too human.

5173340326_f7148098a8_b(Image via divya_, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

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