Shakira, The Bystander Effect & a Subway Assault

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Friends, I have some very upsetting news to report: international superstar Shakira was recently the victim of a horrific crime, and despite being surrounded by bystanders NO ONE HELPED. Here’s the video where Shakira talks about what happens (originally posted to her Instagram live), and she’s speaking Spanish so allow me to explain: while she was in a Barcelona park with her son eating ice cream, 30-50 wild boars…hold on, stet that, TWO wild boars rushed her, stole her purse, dug through it and then stole a sandwich that was inside before running off into the woods.

Speaking on the incident later, she says “And I was like, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” and screaming, because they were taking it away, with my phone in it, my car keys, everything! Like they could understand me! And people were just watching and they weren’t doing anything!”“

Boom. Allow me to introduce you to a little sociological concept known as “the bystander effect” — the idea that if a bunch of people witness something terrible happening, no one will do anything because everyone will assume that someone else will do something. The horror. The horror!

I almost didn’t make this video because I assume everyone already knows that “the bystander effect” has been largely discredited by researchers. That’s right, I was just fucking with you — no one helped Shakira in her time of need not because of the Bystander Effect but because boars are very large and terrifying and Shakira is a rich lady who can afford to buy another sandwich. I mean yes 43% of Americans think they could beat a boar in a hand to hoof fight but we just don’t know the numbers for Spaniards. Also that’s just a lot to process if you’re just out on your lunch break in the local park. Oh look, it’s international multi-millionaire pop star Shakira! Ah, and here are two 200-pound wild animals mugging her of her sandwich. Aaaaand it’s over.

The idea of the “bystander effect” largely stems from the now-famous Kitty Genovese case. In 1964, 28-year old Genovese was stabbed to death in front of her apartment in Queens, New York, at around 3 o’clock in the morning. Two weeks later, the New York Times reported that “38 people witnessed the murder but none of them called the police or came to her aid.”

Despite the fact that that was obviously wrong from the outset (38 people were hanging out in front of a Queens apartment building at 3am just watching a woman be killed?) and competing newspapers found the New York Times account was flawed, it kicked off several decades of psychologists insisting that this was clearly the bystander effect in action. In fact, several neighbors heard the attack and called the police, one neighbor shouted at the attacker to leave her alone, and the calls to police eventually led to an ambulance finding her and rushing her to the hospital. Six days later the cops found the killer, who had previously murdered two other women. He went to prison for life and died there in 2016.

A few years after the murder, psychologists inspired by the story started running experiments in the lab, usually in which they’d have a person witness an emergency either alone or in a small group, and for the most part these studies showed that people were more likely to act quickly when they were alone, bolstering the idea of a real “bystander effect.”

But for the past 15 years, psychologists have teased apart the story and confirmed that any “bystander effect” had nothing to do with the Kitty Genovese case, and studies that look at real-life emergencies, like one paper from 2019 that examined the security camera footage of 200 incidents from three countrie, tend to find that people are more likely to act in an emergency when they’re surrounded by a group.

So if there is a “bystander effect,” it can only really be seen in controlled laboratory conditions. The real world is much, much messier, where people have very different motivations, fears, and abilities compared to a lab.

I suspect that these days, anyone who knows the name “Kitty Genovese” knows the controversial history of how the case was used by psychologists and that it was much more complicated than originally presented in intro to psychology textbooks in the 1980s. But the allure of a bystander effect persists, possibly because it speaks to our fears about the basis of human nature, and the inherent lack of goodness or heroism in our hearts.

That brings me to the reason I’ve been thinking about all this lately — no, not because of Shakira and the hungry boars (an excellent pub quiz team name, fyi), but because of the news out of Philadelphia last month that a woman was allegedly raped on a subway car while other occupants watched and occasionally pulled out their phones to record it for social media.

Here we have the perfect combination of the bystander effect AND the callous effects of social media, where people these days are so disconnected from reality and humanity that they care more about Instagram than another person’s life or safety. “Anybody that was on that train has to look in the mirror and ask why they didn’t intervene or why they didn’t do something,” said a police spokesperson. A psychologist told CNN, “Some people may have been concerned about retaliation, some people may have been concerned about being harmed themselves, and some people may have thought that someone else is going to intervene…All three of those, in my view, John, are unacceptable.”

When I first saw this story making the rounds on social media, I was skeptical. I mean, it’s my default state, but there were a few red flags: the “experts” were citing the bystander effect, which has yet to be proven to be real in the real world; all the information came from the police and not the victim or the witnesses; and the police were clearly pushing for the public to be angry and upset. I mean that literally — the SEPTA police chief held a press conference in which he said “What we want is everyone to be angry and disgusted and to be resolute about making the system safer.” The police threatened that witnesses could be held criminally accountable.

I’m not saying that it’s not on all of us to create a better society, but I’m pretty sure most people think that the entire purpose of having a police department is to make us safer. I won’t go into whether or not the police think that’s their job. But it’s a bit odd, or at least it SHOULD be odd, that the subway police response to this isn’t “we failed to protect this woman,” but that random strangers failed to protect her.

You know what they say about lies — they fly halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its pants. So it is that a week later, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer told the media that the cops were full of shit.

The assault started around 9pm when the victim boarded the train at the same station as the rapist. The rapist groped the victim for about 40 minutes before escalating to actually raping her shortly before 10pm. At that point a SEPTA employee noticed something seemed amiss (though he wasn’t totally sure what was happening) and called police, who boarded the car and arrested the rapist about 6 minutes after the rape began.

When the first officer arrived at the train, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer ““As soon as the train cars opened, everyone was pointing, ‘It’s over there! It’s over there.’”

So for most of the time the assault was happening, it was on a mostly empty train car where people were boarding and leaving at various stops and probably just not paying much attention to two people who, for all they knew, were just having an argument. Once the rape started, should the few people still on board have physically intervened? I mean, I would hope so if it were me being assaulted but we don’t know how strong they were, if they were physically capable of intervening. They DID intervene by pulling out their phones, something that can be used both as evidence later AND as a potential way to scare the perpetrator away if he knows he’s being filmed. And when a police officer finally showed up, they directed him to where he needed to go and offered him their testimony and footage to help him make the arrest.

Local journalists point out that there are potential bystanders who we know can physically intervene because they are trained to deal with these situations and paid to do it. Those bystanders are known as the police. But despite Septa’s claims that their officers patrol the trains during all operational hours, there was an entire hour where not a single police officer walked through that train. No police officers were watching the CCTV that captured the incident in full. No police officers were paying attention to what was happening on a line that is known to be dangerous to the point that SEPTA recently shut down one of the stations so employees could clean up the needles and human waste that made an elevator inoperable. A line so dangerous that SEPTA’s unionized employees are threatening to strike until something is done to make it safer. And what they want isn’t for more members of the general public to put on their superhero capes and stop crimes — they want broad changes by SEPTA to improve the overall safety of the stations and the trains and they want the police to do their jobs.

I suspect that even though the Kitty Genovese “bystander effect” has long been debunked, we’ll continue to see these cases pop up that speak to our inherent belief that with “modernization,” whether that be urbanization, public transportation, or social media, comes a distancing of our own humanity. It’s not true. I mean, social media was deleterious in this instance, but not because it made witnesses to a crime less likely to interfere — only because it spread the misinformation that made people more angry at those witnesses than they were at the rapist or the police who failed to stop him.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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One Comment

  1. I’m reminded of the Bernie Goetz case, where the NYT (among others?) reported that the people Goetz shot were brandishing sharpened screwdrivers. This turned out to simply be confabulation on the part of the NYT et al. The people he attacked did not brandish screwdrivers, sharpened or not; the screwdrivers (not sharpened) were first found when the victims were brought to the hospital. They reported the story as they imagined it must have happened.

    I’ve noticed that NYT reporting tends to show the same biases (and fears) as the demographic they write for — the privileged classes who live in NYC or see NYC as the center of their universe — and I noticed when I moved to NYC that those people were in the habit of grossly exaggerating the dangers of going about in NYC. People would tell me that it was unsafe to ride the subways at any time, but especially late at night, yet I routinely rode the subways well after midnight, and the only crimes I ever saw were turnstile-jumping and smoking on the train. I’ve walked through Harlem at night, and the people I saw were actually nicer than a lot of the people in mid-town.

    I actually got the impression that all the talk of how dangerous NYC is was actually a kind of bragging. They want to convince themselves that it is a rough and dangerous place, perhaps to show off how brave and tough they must be.

    tl;dr — the NYT is nowhere near as accurate and unbiased as people like to think it is.

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