Psychology professors seem to have a love affair with the subject of strangers and whether or not they help someone in need. The impetus for this heated interest was initiated by studies replicating how the size of a group (in a New York City subway car) would affect whether or not aid was given to a distressed passenger.
The work fit in well with the needs of journalists who had a dramatic story on their hands in a middle-class apartment house area. Frantic about why neighbors allegedly failed to call police during the savage murder of Kitty Genovese in this quiet Queens, New York City neighborhood, writers quickly picked up this research.
But some of the holocaust survivors in the buildings did try to help. Their contributions didn’t make headlines because the media found a lack of help more engaging. For journalists, it solidified the lack of empathy in the Big Apple and sold a lot of newspapers.
Note to set the record straight on the 1964 murder of Ms. Genovese: If you want a more thorough understanding of what happened and who did respond, search for the documentary produced by her brother. His research found witnesses who said they responded, and one woman said Kitty lay dying in her arms in a hallway. True or not, the subject of bystander help or indifference has aroused much research right up to the 21st century.
Of course, we could point to the lack of police action in the Uvalde, Texas, attack on an elementary school as a heinous example of not bystander indifference but a failure to save kids actively being killed. The police, heavily armed and with military-grade weapons, stood in a hallway during the murders, as is now being discovered by recent video in the school.
Research, on when, how and why people react in situations of danger to others has included everything from the biology involved, masculinity, group size, personality trait/state helping behavior, and other factors. From the abundance of work being initiated, it appears the reason for helping strangers is still in flux. Now a new study has upended this research in another direction; helping.
Cooperation and Strangers
Rather than look at the distorted beliefs regarding a lack of empathy and cooperation of strangers in situations of danger, one team of researchers looked at whether or not cooperation has declined in the US.
Working with data from 511 studied from the years 1956 to 2017 with 660 unique samples, the researchers concluded they discovered something encouraging.
“We found no evidence for a decline in cooperation over the 61-year period. Instead, we found a slight increase in cooperation over time. In addition, some societal indicators (e.g., income inequality, societal wealth, urbanization level, and percentage of people living alone) measured 10 to 5 years prior to measures of cooperation were found to be positively associated with cooperation, suggesting that they may be potential societal underpinnings of increases in cooperation.”
This particular study, however, did not have data available for how cooperation might have changed (perhaps becoming more positive) during the pandemic. But it did cover the time of the attack on the World Trade Center, where I was amazed at how friendly, and cooperative people were in my area.
There was a degree of “we’re all in this together,” and it didn’t matter the gender, race, or social status of the person. People began, once again, to smile at each other and exchange social pleasantries. The pandemic had a positive effect, too, but I’ll leave that to future researchers to parse out for us with their multiple regression analysis programs.
Would Kittle Genovese’s life have been spared today because of the spirit of cooperation that may be evident now? We can’t answer that question and it will be one with which researchers will wrestle for decades to come.
But we know that there were people who tried to help, and one woman, Sophia Farrar, helped without questioning her safety that night. May her name be a blessing.