On Oslo, junkies and the bystander effect{1}

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Image taken from vg.no

The downtown core of Oslo is about a 20 minute walk from my place. Lately I’ve been going down there pretty much every day. I go because I have nothing better to do, and because I get very easily bored (ridiculously so. Relaxing is really not my thing).  Anyway, there are a lot of hard drug and alcohol addicts in Oslo. (If you’ve read the post on Western and Norwegian Drug Policy, you’ll know of this.)

If you go to Oslo’s Central Station (“Oslo S or Jernbanetorget”, our main train station) you’ll see them. They hang out in several different locations, but Oslo S seems to have the greatest concentration. They’ll get chased away by the cops, but they come back within a fairly short time. If you then walk up Karl Johan (the main street in the centre of Oslo), you will also find them; they might be selling =Oslo mags, or they may, as the one guy I met last night, lie on the sidewalk, seemingly unconscious.  I’ll get back to the (seemingly) unconscious guy, but I have to explain the psych-part first.

There’s this (horrible) phenomenon called “the bystander effect” (psychology majors will be fully aware of this). The bystander effect is simply explained; when we see someone who is in trouble, we frequently fail to react. If there are many people present, as was the case today, we are even less likely to act. It is a weird phenomenon, and it happens all the time. The first time it was adequately described was back in 1964, when Kitty Genovese was brutally murdered in New York. Kitty was attacked, she cried for help, and there were many witnesses.Several of the witnesses heard Kitty’s cries and some saw the event. What was common for them all was that they did nothing.

It would be easy to judge them as horribly incompassionate, but please understand that these weren’t bad people. They were just subject to the bystander effect. Our psyches are cruel though, so when we are aware that there are others witnessing the same event that we are, our minds tell us that  that it is not our responsibility; that we ‘should stay out of it and mind our own business’. We assume that someone else will take care of the problem.  The thing is, this fabled  ’Someone else’ does not take care of the problem, because the ‘someone else’ will likely take the same position as you. We see it in the case of ‘jumpers’ or people who accidentally fall down on railroad/subway tracks when there’s a train coming. The more people are present, the less likely someone is to react. If there is only one person present, she/he is likely to help, to assume responsibility, but when there are tens or hundreds, we all stand by and watch it happen while waiting for someone else to do something.

In becoming aware of the bystander effect I have deliberately chosen not to fall for it. When I see someone struggling, I react. It is not a matter of being in a compassio-thon of sorts, it is just about having the decency to ask if the other person is well. I have never encountered any problems in doing so; the maximum amount of effort I have had to put in was to place a call to the police/ambulance (in the case of a very psychotic young man). The guy yesterday was perfectly fine ( he was just high as all get out) and all I had to do to assure that he was fine (i.e., that he wasn’t in need medical assistance)  was to shake him slightly and ask him if he was ok. No effort, just a question and a gentle touch.

So now that you’re aware of the bystander effect, I hope you react when you see someone who looks to be in a bad way. The worst thing that might happen is you may be told to mind your own business, and though that may hurt a little, you’ll live, and you’ll know that you did the right thing.