• Final Mile

Why don’t we help…and why do we ?


However gruesome and shameful the events are, we should hold back before we declare ourselves inhuman.

We see so many acts of kindness and goodness in the world. Hardcore capitalists are giving away all their wealth, there are people taking care of strays, so many of us voluntarily donate blood, people opened their doors to strangers during Mumbai deluge, People have spent entire lives in helping others, by some estimates the Mumbai beggars collect in excess of 100 crores a year, so many people have put themselves in harm’s way to protect total strangers and in some cases people have shown extraordinary courage in saving animals.

How can we be both ?

On March 13, 1964 Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death near her home in New York. An estimated 12-38 people watched her, but did nothing. More recently during Hurricane Sandy there was an equally heart wrenching incident. Glenda Moore, a 39 year old mother of 2 children(aged 2 & 4) was stuck in the storm. She knocked on many doors desperately seeking shelter as water rose around them. Apparently, no one helped. Eventually the children were torn away from her arms. Their bodies were discovered few days later.

Some attribute this to the social psychological phenomenon of ‘bystander effect’ and diffusion of responsibility. ‘May be someone else will help, there are so many people watching’

This explains only part of the problem and at best a half decent hypothesis. It appears that in the Kitty Genovese case, someone indeed had called 911 and shouted at the attacker. Even in the Delhi incident a recent article by WSJ shows that the bystander effect is not the whole truth. Read more here.  As is the case with such incidents, it is hard to arrive at a definitive explanation, forcing us to resort to cliches like ‘Its a complex and wicked problem’

In the Delhi incident, it is likely that other factors compounded the problem. One is Uncertainty. When we are uncertain of the outcome, we tend to exhibit avoidance / procrastination behaviour. It would be safe to assume that the thought of helping the victims crossed everyone’s mind. But equally likely are conflicting voices. ‘What happens if I help, What will Police ask me to do ? Will I get in to trouble ? Will I be detained, May be I will spend a lot of time around courts because of this. The number of counter-factuals on account of this uncertainty are high. In such situations, avoidance is a natural reaction. To a much much lesser degree, this can be seen when we have to fill a complex form or buy complicated technology or a complex financial instrument.

So, what can we do ? If you are the victim, single out individuals from the group when seeking help. Identify people through their features or the color of the shirt and ask help from a specific person. ‘You with the blue shirt, help me’. Experiments with this approach have shown some positive results.

There are bigger corrections needed both from the authorities and society. In their fascinating book Indianomix, Rupa Subramanya and Vivek Dehejia present a useful analysis on this subject. Save Life Foundation of Piyush Tewari illustrated in their book is a particularly useful model on how reducing uncertainties and improving incentives can improve the situation. Read Rupa Subramanya’s article on this issue here

For starters, Police should communicate and demonstrate with clarity on what happens to people who help. Reduce the uncertainty. Currently the belief is strong that anything thats got to do with the Police is troublesome. If we have to avoid such behaviour in future, Police will have to go on an overdrive in persuading people to help, primarily by reducing this uncertainty.

And how do we make help rewarding. Usually, Charity, Help is rewarding enough. In this case the reward is uncertain, both in terms of possibility and the nature of it. May be we could start by popularizing stories of people who helped and reward them socially and emotionally rather than monetarily. A public recognition, an award for good samaritans, like a name and shame register, a name and reward register.

Notwithstanding all the explanations, be it be from Psychology or Economics or Behavioural Science, this incident hurts us making it difficult to absolve ourselves totally. We will for sometime continue to blame ourselves at times and at times blame it on some phenomenon. Some will see it as ‘India only’ phenomenon, some as a Delhi phenomenon. The fact is there are similar incidents across countries. And all societies react the same way. Invariably there’s a feeling of shame and disbelief. This feeling, all said and done is momentary. What is required to make a lasting change is reducing uncertainty and improving social and emotional rewards for those who help.

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