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Tom Stafford: Avoiding bystander apathy

Psychology actually helped me come to someone else’s rescue once. One day, after lunch, I was heading back to the University of Sheffield Psychology department when I saw that a car had broken down in the middle of the road. Traffic was building up in both lanes, and I could see that the driver was a young mother, with her baby in the back seat. I wanted to help, even if it was just to push the car to the side of the road where it wouldn’t be in the middle of the busy traffic, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to it alone. As an academic I don’t have to use my muscles, except for the ones in my fingers for typing, so I knew there was no way I could push car and mother and child up the slight hill to safety without help. But, as a psychologist, I was also familiar with the classic studies on bystander apathy and the diffusion of responsibility that can stop people helping others out. I determined that I wouldn’t fall victim to this phenomenon. So, rather than standing by the car shouting for assistance from everybody and anybody, I identified two lads who looked like they’d be handy in pushing a car and pointed at them and said clearly “You – I need you to help me push this car”. Once identified and given a specific request, I knew that no diffusion of responsibility could prevent them helping out. We pushed the car safely to the side of the road and got on our respective ways. I never told the driver how psychology had come to her rescue.


Tom Stafford is a lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science at the University of Sheffield. He takes two blogs into the shower, not one: mindhacks.com and idiolect.org.uk.

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