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Human, kind

Dec 10, 2014 | Think about it

Have you ever hovered on the edge of someone else’s distress, debating whether or not to get involved? ‘Do they really want me to do something?’, you ask yourself. ‘Will I make a fool of myself?’. ‘What if I’ve mis-read the situation?’

Contributed by Ros Davies

Lucy (not her real name) met a team from Westminster Street Pastors on London’s Regent Street as she and her partner tried to help a very drunk man who was lying in the middle of the pavement.

Lucy left a message on this website the following day. In it she wrote of the mixed feelings she had experienced that night as she gathered around the semi-conscious man with the street pastors. She expressed her admiration for the help that the street pastors gave to the man, but she also voiced her ‘outrage’ at the number of people who must have seen him lying there – dressed in only a T shirt and with a bad head wound – but kept walking.

‘We couldn’t believe so many people had walked past him and done nothing,’ she wrote.

Not doing something as a way of protecting ourselves, or making sure we don’t stand out, is something that we learn early on. We decline the invitation to sing a solo because the risk of not doing it well enough is overpowering. We read in the travel guide that we must avoid eye contact on the tube if we want to look like a local. We cross the road to avoid getting too close to a boisterous group of teenagers.

How do we explain this? Is it fear? Self-consciousness? Apathy? Laziness? Are we so preoccupied with ourselves that, at times, we can glide through life without rubbing shoulders or making eye contact, listening only to our internal sat nav?

Or is the opposite true: do we have such a heightened awareness of others that we wait to take our cue from them? No one else is reacting, we think, when we walk past a woman crying on a park bench … so no action needs to be taken by me.

Psychologists call this the ‘bystander effect’ and, ironically, studies have shown that the more people that witness an incident, or are in the vicinity of it, the less likely it is that any of them will stop to help. The knowledge that there are other people around, psychologists say, diffuses personal responsibility.

Now that’s a sentence that needs rewriting.

The knowledge that there are other people around defines personal responsibility.

That night on Regent Street, Lucy interrupted her journey to take action on behalf of someone who needed help. Street pastors do the same thing. They believe in the power of these simple, but brave, human connections.

Ros Davies is a freelance writer and communications consultant.