Bystander apathy is a phenomenon. We hung missing people signs all over NYC and sat next to them for an entire day. Did anyone notice? What if we did the same thing with a dog?
I’m going to start with my conclusion of this next experiment: People in New York care more about helping dogs than other humans. If you want to see it with your own eyes, watch this:
Now, let me back up and explain why we did this experiment. When Tim and I were researching the lack of empathy and kindness among New Yorkers, we came across an intriguing theory: a phenomenon called “bystander apathy.” The idea is that the more people there are around you, the less likely you are to help someone in need, even if they’re right in front of you.
Researchers believe there are a few reasons bystander apathy occurs. The first is the diffusion of responsibility; since there are so many others around us who can help, we assume someone else will, so we don’t step in. The second is just naturally feeling shy about standing out in a passive crowd of people who are also afraid to look like they care. And the last reason is social referencing; we look around to see how others behave first and shape our own actions accordingly.
Tim and I wanted to test out this theory and see for ourselves if it was true. So we came up with the idea for an experiment: We hung hundreds of missing people signs all over the East Village with our faces on them. We then sat on one of the most popular street corners all day to see if anyone would notice us, try to help us out, or call the number on the sign.
We made it very easy for people to identify us by through easy signifiers: I kept my hair up and bangs down, and Tim wore a recognizable hat. We took the pictures for the signs the same morning as the experiment, so we looked exactly like our photos. We even chose a Sunday so people were more likely to have the time to help.
We had plastered the streets with these signs on every tree, lamp post, and bus shelter, to the point that it was impossible not to notice them before walking past us. In order to distract myself, I started counting how many people walked past me. It was thousands. A few people did take notice of the signs and even photographed them with their iPhones, but then they’d brisk by me without looking down at me. It made me realize that New York has become filled with walking iPhone zombies with their heads in the clouds, myself included.
I felt invisible and I felt alone, but somehow I couldn’t feel mad; instead I felt guilty. I know that I would be just as likely to walk right past another person in my situation.
It made me question everything. How many people in need of real help have I walked right past without giving a second thought? How can I live such a fortunate life and choose to look the other way with those less fortunate?
After the day ended, Tim and I had a stupid idea we thought might be interesting to test out. What if we did the exact same experiment… with a dog? People are obsessed with their dogs, and we had a hunch that at least a few people would notice a missing dog if there were signs up all over New York City.
The response was beyond anything we could have imagined. Within minutes of us putting up the signs and leaving the dog tied up on the street corner (Don’t worry, we left him water and we sat across from him on a bench to make sure he was safe), the phones calls began pouring in. People were going up to the dog left and right with the sign in their hands to compare if it was really the missing dog from the signs. Within 20 minutes we had to stop the experiment, because there was a major commotion of people trying to help the dog. It's crazy to me that Tim & I sat out there for 10 hours and no one noticed us, yet the entire neighborhood rallied together to save a dog.
How are some of us so apathetic and blind to those less fortunate? Is it aside effect of social media and the ME ME ME generation For further reading: Every Every Every Generation Has Been the Me Me Me Generation The Apathetic Generation ? That doesn't explain why we care more about pets than people, though — a missing person sign should pull at one's heartstrings just as much as a missing dog sign, but for some reason, it appears that's not the case.
Perhaps we're more inclined to help dogs because we perceive them as helpless and innocent. Pets give their love easily and are trustworthy, while I wonder if some of us subconsciously harbor distrust of other humans deep down, or think that people are to blame for their own misfortune. Or maybe that's even looking too much into it — maybe people just feel like it's somehow an easier, more realistic undertaking to search for a dog than it is to find, well, a human. Whatever the reason may be, it was an eye-opening experience that really got Tim and I thinking.
The next morning on my way to work I thought about how I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to be homeless, with thousands of people walking past you each day who don't acknowledge your presence. Obviously, sitting on a street corner for a couple of hours knowing I'd be able to go back home right afterwards had given me no meaningful insight into what it would be like to really be in that situation. I felt badly about how much I’ve taken for granted, what a privilege situation I’m in. I have such a wonderful life and yet I still manage to find shit to whine about.
I had paid a recent visit to the ATM, and remembered that I had a $100 bill in my wallet. It felt impulsive in the moment, I just grabbed it and handed it to him and kept walking to the other end of the platform. The subway started pulling into the station but over the noise of the train I heard the man and the little boy screaming “Miss, miss, wait, you made a mistake,” while running after me. They tried to hand the money back to me, telling me that I made a mistake, I hadn’t given them a $1 bill, this was a $100.
So why don’t I give more often rather than cave into materialism? Why haven't I helped more in the last years? Psychologists have shown that giving makes us feel better than buying or doing things for ourselves, yet I like many others have ignored this basic wisdom. As my train pulled away and the sight of the young boy disappeared, I thought about the cruel irony of bystander apathy. If everyone acts like someone else will help—if we all pretend we don’t see the homeless man on our street, or the hungry family on our subway platform—then it’s good people like that young boy and his father who will be left behind.
Giving $100 isn’t an option for many, nor is it a sustainable act for me every day, but my impulse decision showed me what a huge impact something relatively small can make. What more could I do in the form of donating an hour or two of my time each week, or using my skills to support or create causes I believe in? Or doing more small acts of kindness that don't even cost money. If we all woke up from our apathy, what more could we all do, together?
Special thanks to Mitch Boyer for letting us borrow his beautiful dog, Vivian.
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