Bystander Effect and Narrator – Reader Indifference

On March 13, 1964, Catherine Genovese was murdered outside an apartment complex with thirty-eight residents in New York. The attack began when Winston Moseley repeatedly stabbed Catherine, often known as Kitty Genovese, in the parking lot of her apartment complex. She cried for help, but only one neighbor responded, and Moseley left. Moseley then returned ten minutes later, found Genovese who had tried to crawl to help, and raped and murdered her. Two weeks later, the New York Times published an article detailing how, “For more than half an hour thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.”  While this is factually inaccurate (perhaps only twelve neighbors, doubting the severity of the crime, admitted to seeing or hearing parts of the attack), “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police” shifted public perception onto its own apathy, launching research into what would be termed the bystander effect.

The bystander effect refers to the inverse proportionality of a person in danger receiving aid from an increasingly large group of people. In social psychology experiments involving one-to-one interactions, more often than not an individual will quickly act to help another individual, or at least alert authorities to the matter. But when the individual becomes a group, reaction time slows by a wide margin, or there is no reaction to a crisis. The original research pointed to two reasons for this: pluralistic ignorance and the diffusion of responsibility.  In the first case, the individual, monitoring the behavior of the group, sees the group do nothing and as such acts by doing nothing. In the second case, the individual assumes other members of the group will act first and so each individual feels less responsible for acting to help. The barrier between aid either way is a group consciousness, a feeling of security within the whole in which the individual in need ceases to be part of that collective.

Last week, in reference to the Google doc I discussed the idea of collective thought in positive terms, arguing that in the document itself we were avoiding some of the pratfalls of Groupthink. We were engaging explicitly in a new form of communication, in which individual voices were gradually melding into a whole approaching cohesiveness. However, Dreaming Method’s Floppy elucidates an uglier side of hyper-communication and the desensitization of the Internet reader.  The narrator/author, who left bits of documentation of the crime next door in between coding on a floppy disk, is not entirely indifferent to the pain of his neighbor. He is aware and obviously struggling with his unresponsiveness; he has to care if he is writing this account despite his insistence that he “really wants to care” (FFFFFDO~.TXT). While technically alone with his neighbor’s tapping, he is too connected to actually register responsibility – the computer monitor, his friends, and fear of the neighbor’s assailant keep him from acting in any meaningful way. He only noticed the tapping when his computer speakers went dead, and in the end he drowns the sound out with music. It is as if he actively wants to ignore his neighbor more than he wants to help her, as if he wants the comfort of the bystander effect but is, in actuality, too alone to truly ignore her suffering.

Is the found floppy disk, then, some manner of confessional, a cry for help? Part of the narrative in this is the reader actually finding this floppy, and reading through the text documents. Hypothetically, perhaps the author/narrator left this intentionally as a way of impotently asking someone else to act on his behalf, a kind of poorly-conceived anonymous note to the police. Why else would he be writing these thoughts in between code? Problematically, “we’re all accessories to this crime, now” (Leetevan – thinkin’ along the same lines! Excellent interpretive leap). There are no actual addresses, numbers, anything allowing the reader to respond. We are as apathetic and helpless as the author by proxy. This is where the anonymity of the collective becomes dangerous, because there is the possibility of being rendered unable to act on a human scale of suffering. The author/narrator is left partially desensitized to his neighbor’s pain because of his past traumas, and as readers we are familiar to confessional stories crafted in this manner, so we assume this is a work of narrative fiction. We become the hyperconnected versions of Genovese’s neighbors, in proximity to the information of the crime in progress but even further separated from action, from aid: both now by our own  psychological flaws and the anonymity of mass-communication. If you actually found a floppy disk containing this information, what could you do?

~Benjy Blanco


~ by benjyblanco on April 11, 2010.

One Response to “Bystander Effect and Narrator – Reader Indifference”

  1. I really like this discussion of the bystander effect that you and Evan are running with. I think its interesting that an interactive text like this one is commenting on the lack of collaboration or the lack of acting as represented in the text as well as the Queen’s example both you and Evan submitted. I also wonder what we are to do with floppy disk.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: