Detroit man rescues two women from sexual assault. How to be an effective bystander

The bystander effect suggests the more bystanders present, the less likely each one is to offer help.

What determines whether bystanders intervene in violent crimes?

In Detroit, community resident Michael Thomas chased away a man who attempted to sexually assault two women on Monday, according to Fox News.

He called 911 twice but decided he couldn’t wait for the cops. Instead, he alerted neighbors and set out to help with a stick in hand, Fox reported.

Mr. Thomas's actions stand in contrast to those of Metro passengers in Washington, D.C., who witnessed a stabbing aboard a metro car last week, but did not get involved. The stabbing left 24-year-old Kevin Joseph Sutherland dead, The Washington Post reported.

One woman said the passengers discussed it was too dangerous to intervene, reports The Post.

She informed “the attacker that she was not looking at his face, even though she had already gotten a good look at him.”

“I did not want him to think that he had to hurt us because we would identify him. I wanted him to think that he could walk away from this, and that’s what he did,” she told the Post.

Last year, The Christian Science Monitor’s Fabien Tepper analyzed the historical and modern-day manifestations of the "bystander effect," a theory, first developed by psychologists in the 1960s that the more bystanders present, the less likely each one is to offer help in an emergency. Intervention, the theory suggests, has "less to do with compassion and more to do with the belief that others would step in.”

The bystander effect held sway among social psychologists for many decades, but more recent research has found that other factors can also come into play. As Ms. Tepper notes:  

A 1999 article in the journal Human Relations analyzed a 1993 murder case to argue that understanding of so-called "bystander apathy" was "hampered by a focus on the physical co-presence of others rather than an analysis of the social meanings."

A 1980 field experiment found the bystander effect was reversed when a woman in apparent distress met the eyes of bystanders, in which case they were more likely to help. A 2008 study of American college men found a desire to appear masculine played into their decision-making processes regarding intervention.

Bystanders can play a key role in stopping sexual assaults, particularly on college campuses, where one in five women has been sexually assaulted while in college, according to a 2014 White House report.

A tip sheet from Princeton University’s Health Services recommended how bystanders should act.

  • Notice when situations can lead to violence. Look out for offensive comments and aggression. Listen to your gut instinct.
  • Identify whether it is appropriate to intervene. Evaluate risks and urgency.
  • Recognize personal responsibility for intervention. This is more likely if no one else is around.
  • Know how to intervene safely and comfortably. Acquire skills beforehand.
  • Take action through distraction, direct confrontation or requesting help from law enforcement or friends.
  • A 2014 New York Times article explained how students can be creative when it comes to stopping sexual assault.

    Jane Stapleton, a University of New Hampshire researcher who runs bystander intervention programs at colleges around the country and in Europe told The Times a host of unusual diversions that can prevent sexual assault: “Suddenly turning on the lights at a party or turning off the music; accidentally spilling a drink on the guy; forming a conga line and pulling him away from the woman he’s bothering and onto the dance floor. One of her favorites came from a young woman who approached her drunken girlfriend and said, loudly, “Here’s the tampon you asked for.”

    Daniel Rowe, a sophomore at the University of New Hampshire, told The Times he watched a drunken teammate pressuring a woman at a party and pulled him aside.

    “I said, ‘You know she doesn’t want to talk to you, but there’s this other girl downstairs who really likes you.' " There was no girl downstairs.

    Colleges often integrate extensive poster and social media campaigns, skill-building curricula, resident assistant training, and interactive theater to build awareness, according to Not Alone, a government website with information on how to respond to and prevent sexual assault.

    Sarah McMahon, associate director of the Center on Violence Against Women and Children at Rutgers University, told Time magazine disapproval by peers is a key component of intervention: “Especially with men and boys, their willingness to intervene is based on whether or not they think their male peers would approve. That is the strongest factor, more so than their own attitudes,” McMahon said.

    She argued the key is to shift social norms.

    Mark Levine, a social psychologist at Lancaster University in Britain, told Time “Somehow, when we’re with other people we [may] lose our rational capacity or personal identity, which controls our behavior.”

    Another social psychologist, Stanley Cohen, said denial and transforming the meaning or significance of crimes, often leads people to ignore them, according to Time.

    Still, many situations can put bystanders at significant risk. Safer and sustained general efforts to combat crime include neighborhood watch initiatives.

    According to a study on its effectiveness, neighborhood watch can discourage potential offenders due to higher risks of being caught and increase the flow of useful information from residents to police.

    But members of neighborhood watch should not view themselves as vigilantes, says the National Crime Prevention Council. Instead their core function is to be observant and report suspicious activity. They may also implement broad community reforms that include cleaning up littered streets, working with small businesses to repair rundown storefronts, and creating employment for youth.

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