A social phenomenon known as the "bystander effect" may be behind the shocking behavior displayed by passersby in a surveillance video of a 2-year-old Chinese toddler being hit twice by two vehicles with no one stopping to intervene or help, according to psychologists.
The bystander effect is a phenomenon in which the greater the number of people that are present at the time of an accident or a situation in which someone is in dire need of assistance, the less likely anyone is to help. Psychologists believe this happens either because people assume others will take responsibility and help, they are afraid to help, or they monitor the behavior of others around them and if nobody else is doing anything to help, they assume it is not needed.
In an interview with CNN, psychologist Erik Fisher said that the inaction taken by the passersby in the surveillance video is, unfortunately, typical human behavior.
"We have all these different attitudes and beliefs inside of us and we say, 'If I was there I would do this,' but we don't know until we're in that actual moment," said Fisher.
He speculated that people may have done nothing to help the toddler because of the way the human brain deals with trauma in the sense that it tends to disassociate itself from the situation. He said the video indicates disassociation may have taken place, as people can be seen looking and gazing at the toddler as they walk away, but failing to take action.
"I think you have to be very careful to judge these people as horrific people," explained Fisher. "They may have their own kids, their own families, people that they love very much and they just didn't respond in that situation."
The video sparked worldwide outrage last Tuesday when it went viral, showing the toddler being struck by a van and lying in a pool of blood with several people walking by and looking, but no one stopping to help. The toddler was then hit again by another van and people exhibited the same reaction until a local trash collector saw what was happening, scooped her up and moved her to the side of the road. The little girl, Wang Yue, died a few days later from the injuries she sustained.
Two suspected drivers of the vans were arrested after a police investigation.
Fisher said one of the ways people can combat the bystander effect is simply by being aware of it, and that the attention the surveillance video has gotten can certainly prevent the same situation from happening in the future.
"Being aware of it decreases the likelihood that somebody wouldn't do something because you've challenged yourself, you've put yourself in the situation and you've kind of prepared yourself for it ," he explained. "We have to think about these things because preparation in the long run is everything that leads us to success."