Anti-Asian Violence and the Bystander Effect

Violence against Asian-Americans continues to occur in unprecedented and unacceptable numbers. The New York Times recently reported on a “rising tide” of incidents where people of Asian descent were “pushed, beaten, kicked, spit on and called slurs,” (Cai et al.) typically accompanied by a reference to the coronavirus, as if the victim had any more to do with the virus than the attacker.

Racial discrimination and hate crimes are abhorrent and, in this case, uniquely senseless. (See our videos on Implicit Bias and In-group/Out-group Bias.) A 65-year-old woman in Midtown Manhattan in late March was the victim of a particularly brutal attack. She was kicked to the sidewalk and repeatedly stomped.

In some ways the worst aspect of the crime appeared on surveillance footage from inside an apartment building that captured the entire attack. A man is standing in the entrance and watches the entire attack. As the victim attempts to rise, two other people enter the frame and one of them closes the door. In other words, three men watched the attack and did nothing to help, it appears. They turned their backs. This being New York City, the specter of Kitty Genovese raised its ugly head. (Other video footage that later came to light indicated that the men eventually tried to help out, but not soon enough to save their jobs.)

On the other hand, there is evidence that a different witness to the attack followed the assailant, confronted him, and retreated only when he pulled a knife. Why three men did nothing, but a single man tried to help is an important question?

Well, there are probably many reasons, but there is certainly evidence that people often take their cues as to whether and how to act from those around them. This is called conformity bias. (See our video on the Conformity Bias). A variant is called the bystander effect when people witness an event like the Manhattan attack. As Latané and Darley ‘s experiments indicate, one unresponsive bystander may be enough to cue other bystanders to choose not to respond as well. How can we overcome the bystander effect? How can we train people to do better?

In his recent book The Skillfulness of Virtue: Improving Our Moral and Epistemic Lives, Professor Matt Stichter, a virtue ethicist, argues that acquiring a virtue is a process of acquiring a skill. A virtue is a skill, he argues, that can be acquired much as the skill of playing the piano or juggling bowling balls and chain saws. While we don’t agree with everything that Prof. Stichter writes, we very much enjoyed his book and paid particular attention to his discussion of the bystander effect and how we might train people to overcome it.

Stichter discusses an interesting study by Cramer and colleagues that indicated that registered nurses were essentially immune to the bystander effect in emergency situations where their skills were the key to responding. It appears that people who feel a high degree of efficacy are more likely to spring into action than others. Thornberg and Jungert found parallel results in a survey of potential adolescent bystanders of bullying.

Stichter also references approaches taken in Europe that train for moral courage, in significant part by increasing efficacy. These programs improve efficacy first by educating participants as to best practices in a bystander situation:

Participants learn about what to do and what to refrain from doing in diverse situations of neighborhood violence (e.g., put the victim at the center of your intervention; never touch the perpetrator; never intervene directly in a fist fight; make an emergency call). Notably, participants are informed about the emergency services in their community, which is an important issue in combating neighborhood violence, since bystanders often remain passive simply because they lack the knowledge of how to activate the emergency system. (Brandstatter & Jonas)

There are other aspects to the training, including the use of role-playing and simulations of harassment and violence so that people can try various approaches, such as de-escalation. This is similar to Mary Gentile’s Giving Voice to Values approach (see our 8-part GVV video series) that involves, among much else, pre-scripting…thinking seriously and specifically in advance about how to act when a moral challenge arises. Doing so tends to dramatically increase the likelihood of taking action when the time comes.

The good news is that training is available to increase and improve bystander intervention in situations that include anti-Asian violence (Anderson). It’s got to be worth a try.

 

Sources

Stacey Anderson, “Can ‘Bystander Intervention Training’ Stop Hate Crimes?” NY Magazine, Apr. 4, 2021.

Albert Bandura, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves (2016).

Cara Biasucci & Robert Prentice, Behavioral Ethics in Practice: Why We Sometimes Make the Wrong Decisions (2020).

Veronika Brandstatter & Kai Jonas, “Moral Courage Training Programs as a Means of Overcoming Societal Crises,” in Restoring Civil Societies: The Psychology of Intervention and Engagement Following Crisis (K. Jonas & T. Morton eds. 2012).

Jonah Bromwich, Doormen Who Stood by after Brutal Attack on Asian Woman Are Fired,” New York Times, April 6, 2021.

Weiyi Cai et al., “Swelling Anti-Asian Violence: Who is Being Attacked Where,” New York Times, Apr. 3, 2021.

Kevin Cook, Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America (2014).

Robert Cramer et al., “Subject Competence and Minimization of the Bystander Effect,” Journal of Applied Psychology Journal of Applied Psychology 18(13): 1133-1148 (1988).

Mary Gentile, Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right (2010).

Gianluca Gini et al., “Determinants of Adolescents’ Active Defending and Passive Bystanding Behavior in Bullying,” Journal of Adolescence 31(1): 93-105 (2008).

Bibb Latané & John Darley, The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn’t He Help? (1970).

Matt Stichter, The Skillfulness of Virtue: Improving Our Moral and Epistemic Lives (2018).

Robert Thornberg & Tomas Jungert, “Bystander Behavior in Bullying Situations: Basic Moral Sensitivity, Moral Disengagement, and Defender Self-efficacy,” Journal of Adolescence 36: 478-483 (2013).

 

Videos

Conformity Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/conformity-bias.

Giving Voice to Values:  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/introduction-to-giving-voice-to-values.

Implicit Bias:  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/implicit-bias.

In-group/Out-group Bias:  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/in-groupout-group

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