The Bystander Effect

When a fire broke out in a Boston neighborhood last weekend, Judy Harris’ husband — and several others at a youth baseball game nearby — rushed to help.

Some called 911. Her husband ran in the building, “rushed up the front stairs, rang the doorbells for all three apartments, and pounded the front door.”

He got everybody out and then thought about the scene he’d witnessed, she writes.

When my husband first ran toward the burning house, he noticed a passerby taking pictures. “Wow, look, a fire!” the man said, walking around to get a good angle for his shots. Later, more people converged, holding their cellphones aloft. My husband was incredulous that no one else thought to try to warn the residents, but instead were documenting the events for social media. (The next day, I read an article on a local website that began, “A quick-acting JP resident took photos of flames bursting out the roof of a Child Street home…”)

Was this a modern-day version of the bystander effect? According to Psychology Today, the “bystander effect occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation.” Have our new-found instincts to document everything on our phones heightened the bystander effect, because we’re almost always connected to others online? Witnesses capture videos of police brutality, which become important social media tools. But should this type of citizen journalism also apply to videoing a fire that’s just begun, without thinking of lives that might be at risk?

Writing on the WBUR Cognoscenti website today, she also makes an admission that has led to her questions: She was one of the people taking pictures.