Emergency Management and Bystander Behavior Effect

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This essay will compare and contrast two approaches to understanding bystander responses to emergencies. The approaches explored in the essay are the experiment approach and discourse analysis, each being explained in further detail later in the essay. Bystander behavior (effect) can be explained as the likely hood of a bystander acting or offering assistance in an emergency situation. Some researchers believe that bystanders are more likely to act when alone, as they are more accountable for the stranger than when there is a large crowd of bystanders, where blame can be deflected on to everyone else to act. Firstly both of the approaches will be explained, after which the two approaches will be compared and after contrasted. The essay will end with a summarisation of all the material covered during the essay.

In 1964, in New York, a woman called Catherine Genovese was attacked and killed, when walking home alone at night down her street. Despite the fact that 38 residents heard her shouts for help, they all failed to help, with only one person calling the police, unfortunately it was too late and she was dead before they arrived. The actions (or lack thereof) of the residents, caused two psychologists, Bibb Latané and John Darley, to start research into why the 38 residents failed to act in the situation. By using experiments where they could control the variables and situations, they tested people to see how they would react to the different scenarios. 

One of the experiments they conducted was titled ‘lady in distress’ , where a confederate was placed in the role of a ‘market researcher representative’, and the participants were brought in under the belief that they were participating in market research questionnaire. Participants were brought into the room in different conditions, one had only one true participant at a time, the second used one true participant and a confederate, and the last used two true participants. Participants were left to fill out the questionnaires and would hear a loud crash from the next room where the ‘market research representative’ went, pre-recorded audio was played and would gradually get more quite over time, until the confederate walked out the room limping. 

The findings of this experiment showed some interesting data which was later used to help make the theory of bystander effect. They showed that when alone 70% of participants helped the ‘victim’, while when two people are present and one doesn’t help its lowered to only 7%. Thus the theory of bystander effect was created, when there is more people blame can be deflected and it can be seen as not your problem as someone else will deal with it, however when alone there is no one else to point blame at and there is a perceived sense of responsibility, making bystanders more likely to react.

In 1993 two 10 year old boys, kidnapped and later murdered a 3 year old boy, from a shopping centre in Merseyside. This caused Mark Levine (1999) to wonder why none of the 38 bystanders didn’t step in to help and prevent James’s murder. He argued that the bystander effect theory isn’t completely accurate, as in the case of James Bulger, he and his two kidnappers where seen in many different environments, with some being with many bystanders and some being only one present. But if the bystander effect was to explain the situation then the bystanders who were alone should of stepped in to help, however they didn’t. 

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Mark Levine explains why bystanders don’t step into help in emergency situations in a different way; he used discourse analysis to explain why nobody stepped in to help. He used court testimonies that the bystanders involved in the case of James provided, by reading through all the testimonies he was able to gain an understanding of the thoughts going through the bystander’s heads and what caused them not to act. 

Mark suggested that social context plays a role when deciding whether to help in an emergency or not. In the case of James Bulger, he was perceived as the brother of the two kidnappers even thought he was visibly distressed, nobody stepped in to help as family groups are often seen as not our business and they bystanders may feel their help wouldn’t be welcomed. As well as that there is also the social idea that children are taught that all strangers are dangerous, and the bystanders may not of wanted to get involved as they would be perceived as a threat and may get in trouble.

Both approaches are similar as they were both prompted by murders that could have been preventable if bystanders had acted. The experiment method being prompted by Catherine Genovese’s attack and murder and the discourse analysis method being prompted by the kidnap and murder of James Bulger. Both of these deaths could have been avoided if bystanders had intervened and provided assistance, however nobody did, or at least not to a level where it stopped the murders. This prompted psychologists to discover why nobody acted and what the conditions are for somebody to act in an emergency situation. A further similarity is that both methods attempt to explain why sometimes bystanders fail to provide assistance or act in emergency situations, when it is socially expected to provide help when others are in need.

However both methods attempt to explain why bystanders fail to act in different ways. The experiment method suggests that when in a large group of other bystanders you are much less likely to act then if you are alone. Discourse analysis suggests that this method isn’t true, as in the case of James Bulger, the 38 witnesses saw him and his two kidnappers in many different situations, some being alone and some being in crowds. One bystander did stop them and question what was happening, however when they was told by one of the 10 year olds that he was his brother, he didn’t take any further action. 

This help mould the theory that the reason bystanders don’t act is because of “social and historical context” Bystanders may feel it is not their place to intervene even when it is an emergency situation, such as in the perceived family group of James and his kidnappers. Another difference in the two approaches is the type of data collected. Discourse analysis uses qualative data from court testimonies, while in the case of the ‘lady in distress’ experiment quantative data was collected. Furthermore the experiment approach may lack ecological validity as experiments are carefully controlled and manipulated, often being conducted in labs. 

Being so controlled the results collected may not accurately represent how bystanders would react in an emergency situation. In some situations it can be obvious that action is required such as in a car crash or an older person falling on ice, but in other situations it’s not as clear, such as a verbal fight between a man and a woman or a child tripping over. Discourse analysis on the other hand uses real testimonies from bystanders evolved in real emergency situations, which gives a real life look at what the bystanders where thinking and what may of prevented them from acting in an emergency situation. Since the testimonies are put in the words of the bystanders involved in real situations they have high ecological validity compared with the experiments where everything is carefully controlled and manipulated.

In conclusion this essay has addressed the essay choice of comparing and contrasting two approaches to understanding bystander responses to emergencies. Firstly by addressing the question and presenting the essay in the introduction, then moving on to outline the experiment approach and a brief history. After which moving on to the second approach of discourse analysis again giving an outline of the approach and its brief history. Following these both methods were compared and then contrasted to meet the essay question. 

A brief summary of the two methods is, both methods attempt to explain the same subject matter and both were prompted by the real life murders of two people, which may have been preventable if the bystanders witnessing them had intervened. However they both go about the subject in different ways, with the experiment method using experiments to collect quantative data and discourse analysis collecting qualative data using court testimonies from real emergency situations. Both methods have helped other psychologists to better understand bystander responses to emergencies, with each approach having its own strengths and weaknesses.   

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