Emergency Intervention and Good Sam
A tragic death forty-six years ago launched an intriguing field of love research: emergency intervention. I’ve been wondering what it means for imitating the Good Samaritan.
In March of 1964, Katherine “Kitty” Genovese was attacked and stabbed repeatedly coming home from work one morning. At least thirty-eight people watched or heard the attack. But not a single person came to Kitty’s assistance. An anonymous caller reported the incident a half-hour later. Before help could arrive, she bled to death.
When the public heard that thirty-eight witnesses did not intervene, a flurry of questions arose. People wondered if such apathy said something about New Yorkers or big city culture. Others wondered if this tragic event reveals a fundamental flaw in human nature. People assumed the death of Kitty Genovese proves that humans are apathetic, callous, and indifferent.
Social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley and other researchers, however, decided to search for experimental answers. They wanted to know why onlookers and witnesses of crisis often fail to respond. Their research takes the name “emergency intervention.”
Latané and Darley focus upon the decision-making processes we use when deciding whether to help during situation-specific tragedies. The social scientists have developed a five-step model for how bystanders decide whether to intervene to help in an emergency.
The first step in the decision model is simply noticing the emergency event. This may seem rather obvious, but various factors influence a bystander’s ability to notice a victim. Bystanders experiencing bad moods, for instance, are less likely to be sensitive to their surroundings. Bystanders are also more likely to notice vivid events. A victim of “ho-hum accident” witnessed by a bystander having a bad day is less likely to receive help.
The second step is interpretation. A bystander must not only notice a tragic incident, he or she must also interpret it as requiring assistance. In a series of studies, researchers have documented that bystanders are more likely to intervene when victims express strong distress cues. Those who observe an event and are confused by the victim’s silent or passive actions wonder if they should intervene. Bystanders are more likely to help screamers than quiet victims.
Sometimes environmental factors confuse or distract witnesses. In one study, a person wearing a cast dropped books on the sidewalk directly in front of oncoming strangers. In some instances, these books were dropped as a power lawn mower roared nearby. In other instances, books were dropped and the mower was not running. When the power lawn mower was silent, bypassers helped the injured book dropper eighty percent of the time. When the power mower was running loudly, however, bypassers helped only fifteen percent of the time. Excessive stimulation hampers a person’s ability to interpret what to do in an emergency.
The third step in Latané and Darley’s model for emergency intervention decision making is responsibility taking. Experiments show that bystanders who believe themselves the only witness to an emergency are more likely to help. Bystanders may shirk responsibility, because they assume others are better equipped or have more knowledge for helping victims. This phenomenon, labeled “diffusion of responsibility,” probably accounts for why no one intervened to help Kitty Genovese.
In one study, college students heard from an intercom system about an emergency nearby. Students who believed themselves the only ones hearing the emergency message were more likely to take responsibility to help than students who believed others also heard the message. Students who believed people others heard but were somehow unable to intervene were as likely to help as those who heard and believed themselves alone.
Step four in the intervention decision-making process involves deciding what kind of help to give. Here the issue is not so much willingness to help. The issue is discerning the best way to aide in an emergency.
One study tested the effectiveness of those with first-aid training when encountering an emergency. Both those with training and those without were equally as likely to respond to help a bleeding person. Perhaps not surprisingly, the medical assistance of those with first-aid training was most effective in the emergency. Those without such training often made the emergency worse. Sometimes those who believe they lack the expertise to help effectively will fail to intervene in emergencies like the one involving Kitty Genovese. Bystanders may worry that intervening will cause more harm than good.
The fifth and final step in the emergency intervention process is the actual implementation of the decision to help. This step raises questions of costs and rewards for a potential helper.
A number of experiments have been done under the general rubric of assessing costs and rewards to those who help the needy. Many experiments are based on the notion that people generally want to maximize rewards and minimize costs. The cost-reward approach is associated with an economic view of social interaction, and one of its strengths is its capacity for measurement.
When implementing the decision to help a victim, bystanders may consider costs and benefits related to the time and effort that giving aide requires. Some may decide that the risk for personal harm is too great. Others may intervene to avoid negative emotional consequences – e.g., guilt – they may face should they choose not to help. Some may help because they know that helping will likely put them in a good mood. Others help because they find the victim in some way attractive, similar to himself or herself, or friendly. As costs increase, the general likelihood a bystander will help decreases. As rewards increase, the likelihood a bystander will help increases.
The cost-benefit aspect of decision-making has its limits, of course. For instance, the scheme seems not to account well for bystanders who help despite the costs seeming to outweigh the benefits. Some people act self-sacrificially so that the costs for helping far outweigh any rewards. But even the generally most self-sacrificial people may choose not to intervene, because they perceive the cost of helping too high.
When I think about emergency intervention research, I often think of Jesus’ story about the Samaritan who rescued a beaten man on the Jericho road. It seems like a classic victim intervention example.
In the story, a victim of violence and theft receives no help from two with whom he apparently had much in common. A priest and Levite pass by without pausing to give aid.
When I hear this part of the story, I wonder why I don’t help every victim I encounter. I wonder why I sometimes pass on by those who need desperately need help.
I try not to be too easy on myself or too hard when I think about my own efforts to help those in need. On the one hand, I can’t rescue every victim I encounter. In a world in which the needs far outweigh my individual abilities, resources, and time, I can’t intervene in every emergency. I’m not superman. And I shouldn’t feel guilty that my finitude restricts me from being the answer to every question of suffering.
When I first began work as a youth pastor, I thought I could always be the answer. I was idealistic. I ran myself ragged trying to help everyone in need. As a result, my family relationships and my personal health suffered. It didn’t take too long to discover I can’t be the Good Samaritan for every tragedy in the world – even every tragedy in my small congregation.
On the other hand, I know I sometimes give poor excuses for not helping victims of tragedy. I can rationalize my apathy. I can fail to help with my money, my time, my resources, or my empathy. The priest and Levite become my models, not the Good Samaritan.
Several factors largely influence my decisions now about how I decide to help those who suffer. One is my own discernment process. I find helpful listening to advice from wise others, spending time in prayer and reflection, and trying to be aware of the still small voice of what I think is the Holy Spirit’s leading. These help me discern when to rescue some and not others. This discernment process is not precise or inerrant. But I do think it is often helpful.
The second factor has to do with motivation: I need to be empowered to rescue victims. I think God is a necessary source of power for all motivation for doing good. Every good gift comes from the Father.
But other factors also motivate me. For instance, the community of believers with whom I associate plays a key role in persuading me to help others. The educational processes I have pursued often serve as motivational forces. And the memories I have of times that I have been a victim can motivate me. I tend to interpret the old phrase, “there but for the grace of God go I,” in this sense (not in the sense that God picks and chooses who will suffer).
A number of recent scientific studies suggest that rescuers are more likely to help victims whom they consider similar to themselves. Shared likeness motivates rescuers. I tend to help those whom I think are similar to me in some way.
My goal, however, is not to let the tendency to help those similar restrict my decisions help. Instead, my goal is to see similarities I share with everyone I meet.
Jesus says that the Good Samaritan had compassion for the beaten victim on the Jericho road. The Greek word translated “compassion” suggests empathy. To empathize with others is to identify ourselves in some way with them. The Good Samaritan’s empathetic response motivated him to intervene in an emergency.
The concluding words to Jesus’ story are simple: “Go and do likewise.” They serve well as a basis for our ethics. But they don’t solve all the issues of discernment and motivation. We still must make difficult decisions as we encounter the myriad of crises in our world both globally and locally.
May we learn how best to follow the example of the Good Samaritan in our day and in our ways.