Kitty Genovese - Martyr for Psychology

From Seth Roberts:

Long after the famous Kitty Genovese story — supposedly many people watched her being murdered without doing anything — doubt was cast on its accuracy. In the meantime, John Darley and  Bibb Latane, two professors of psychology, it as the starting point for a series of experiments on what they called the bystander effect — the more bystanders, the less likely that each one will help. They concluded there was “diffusion of responsibility” — the more people that witness something, the less each witness feels responsible for doing something.

(linked Wikipedia article has a section about how the psych textbook version isn’t factual, although the bystander effect is of course real and has since been rigorously demonstrated). 

And then, two fascinating anecdotes (Seth jumps quickly from anecdote to hypothesis, and I love him for it):

In China the problem is much worse. A few years ago a woman was hit by a car. A second car stopped to help her. The woman told the police that the second driver had hit her. The second driver was furious, gave many interviews, and eventually a witness was found who said it was the driver, not the injured woman, who was telling the truth. Someone I spoke to attributed her behavior to the need to pay hospital bills. The driver who hit her would never be caught, she reasoned. Maybe the second driver could be forced to pay.

I remember seeing such a video. Horrifying. It was this hit and run; the video is no longer available.

My Chinese tutor, who is Korean, told me a story that illustrates the depth of Chinese bystander inaction and suggests another reason for it. A friend of hers was visiting from Korea. When this friend was in Wangjing (in the Chaoyang district of Beijing), she saw a person lying on a busy street, bleeding but still alive. Apparently the bleeding person had been hit by a car. Three hours later, the friend returned — and the accident victim was still there! Now dead. So, with difficulty — she doesn’t speak Chinese — she called the police.

The police treated her as a suspect. She was forced to come to the police station five times, for hours each time.

What a deterrent to calling the police! I cannot believe the police were so stupid as to consider a Korean tourist on foot who calls the police a serious suspect in the death of someone lying in the middle of traffic. I believe that by causing her a lot of trouble, they wanted to send a message: Leave us alone. The fewer calls they get, the less work they have to do. No wonder everyone ignored the bleeding victim.

I agree with the “leave us alone” interpretation, but also, the person at the scene really is 1000s of times more likely to be the perpetrator than some random person from the general populace, and police have never seemed to mind getting a thrill out of an attempt to intimidate a confession out of someone who has only a 1% chance of being guilty - if they win, then they were heroic. The reason it’s usually wrong to single out one person for scrutiny without a solid line of detection pointing to them from physical evidence is that the absolute chance of their guilt is still supremely low. Being at the scene should nearly be evidence *against* guilt (if enough time has passed). See also Privileging the Hypothesis and base rate neglect.