Posted by on December 8, 2018

Generally, we perceive a greater sense of security in groups.  Whether we are walking through a shopping mall, traveling on the subway, or sitting a movie theatre, we often relax, taking comfort in the “safety in numbers.”    There are many witnesses (most own camera phones) to deter criminals from initiating an assault.  If an assault occurs someone will intervene or get help. 

Can we rely on these assumptions?  A closer look at assault cases suggest that the presence of others does not necessarily deter or guarantee assistance.  

In his bestselling book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Galdwell refers to the 1964 tragedy of Kitty Genovese who was chased, stabbed, and ultimately murdered in New York City.   Adding to this tragedy was the fact that none of the 38 witnesses attempted to help or even call for help. Various explanations have been given for this lack of response including the anonymity of urban life.  Galdwell suggests another explanation – the diffusion of responsibility.   “When people are in a group, he writes, “responsibility for acting is diffused.” In other words, in group settings we tend to feel less compelled to respond as others present can (and hopefully do) take action. 

We don’t have to go back to 1964 and Kitty Genovese for such examples.  In April 2010, on the subway near Chester station in Toronto, two young men assaulted and robbed a 79 year old man in front of 20 to 30 passengers.  None of the other passengers helped nor was their evidence that anyone utilized the subway’s emergency alarm.  

 Various other factors were likely at play including fear, or what one might call an urban apathy – the same that evokes  frustration rather than empathy when accidents or illness cause commuter or traffic delays.  Moreover, violence and how to respond to violence, is not familiar to many Canadians.  This being said, it is likely that many of those passengers were waiting for someone else to intervene.

Of course, there are people who will directly intervene or get assistance.  The point here, however, is that we cannot assume this will happen.  Our next blog will focus on tips to be safe in busy public places.   

Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.  Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 2002


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