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Can we make our own decision?

If you witnessed one of your colleagues being bullied by other co-workers in the company, would you step forward to do something?

If you answered YES, that’s awesome! Then, let’s add more background information to the scenario.

What if the other ten colleagues also witnessed the bully, but they did nothing. Would you step forward regardless of the disaccord? Or you would assimilate into the majority by doing nothing as well?

The Kitty Genovese Case

You may wonder how the surrounding could make a difference in my own decision? Unfortunately, we are not as strong as we expected. On Friday, March 13, 1964, 28-year-old Genovese was returning home from work. As she approached her apartment entrance, she was attacked and stabbed by a man later identified as Winston Moseley.

Despite Genovese’s repeated calls for help, none of the dozen people in the nearby apartment building who heard her cries called the police to report the incident. The attack first began at 3:20 AM, but it was not until 3:50 AM that someone first contacted the police.

The Bystander Apathy Experiment

The Kitty Genovese case is the most frequently cited example of the bystander effect in introductory psychology textbooks. After the case, psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané devised an experiment called the ‘Bystander Apathy Experiment’ in which they recruited university students to participate. The students would each be talking to other participants in a discussion group; however, each participant had a separate room. In other words, the conversations would be taking place over microphones and speakers where either of the participants would not be able to see the person they are talking to physically.

Each participant is given two minutes to talk during their turn, and they do not know that the other ‘participant’ they are talking to is a pre-recorded voice. Depending on their treatment condition, the subject can be talking to one to five people. One of the voices is of an epileptic student who suffers from seizures. He confesses to the group that he suffers from such a disease in his first turn of speaking to the group. On his second turn, the seizure starts. The pre-recorded voice sounded something like this:

“I’m… I’m having a fit… I… I think I’m… help me… I… I can’t… Oh my God… err… if someone can just help me out here… I… I… can’t breathe p-p-properly… I’m feeling… I’m going to d-d-die if…”

The tested participant cannot see this person having a seizure. Therefore, he can only hear his reactions. The study based its results on how long it took the participant to get up, leave the room, and search for someone to help.

The results are shocking. Only 31% of people went to seek help. The majority of people did not even bother to help this suffering man. Much of the results were based on the treatment condition the participant was placed in. For example, a participant who entered a group with only one voice was more likely to seek help than a participant in a group with five other voices.

Then, what happened? What changed our behaviour? One major factor of the bystander effect is the diffusion of responsibility. This means that Individuals feel less responsible for the event when they are in a group. Another factor is known as conformity bias. Rather than using personal and ethical judgment, people imitate the behaviour of others in a bid to toe the party line. This type of behaviour may be unintentional but can have a powerful impact on our ability to make unbiased decisions.

An easy question has led us to a dilemma. Can we make our own decision? Of course, we expect teamwork will lead us to make better decisions and a better outcome. But what if it leads us to make a miserable decision together and make it happen even faster?

Lake Okaro | Kun Lu

As a ritual, I illustrate some solutions to prevent the bystander effect and the conformity bias.

1. Being aware of the existence of the bystander effect. When faced with a situation that requires action, understand how the bystander effect might be holding you back and consciously take steps to overcome it.

2. All members write down their opinion on a notepad and then share it with the team.

3. Use a scorecard to assist the decision-making process more rationally.

4. Foster an culture of openness in the organisation, so people can be more comfortable giving their authentic opinion.

5. Cut off the influence from the surroundings by giving individuals their own space to make decisions.


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