What causes bystanders to act in cases like Milwaukee bus stop death? | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Since the public learned Jolene Waldref froze to death at the corner of a busy Milwaukee intersection during a Monday evening rush hour, much of the reaction has been horrified outrage: Why did no one stop to help her before it was too late?

Surveillance video shows passersby had many opportunities. Hundreds of cars whizzed past the busy intersection. As she doubled over, three people walking toward her in a crosswalk veered away. Later, as she lay on the sidewalk, a pedestrian approached her and appeared to continue on without stopping.

The first bystander to call for help was a 32-year-old motorist named Charlotte Morris. About 20 minutes after Waldref dialed 911 and told dispatchers she couldn’t breathe, Morris saw her at the intersection and pulled over, jumping out of her car and calling 911 herself. By that point, Waldref was unconscious and pulseless. The Milwaukee Fire Department paramedics who arrived couldn’t revive her.

What causes a bystander not to help someone in distress, and what prompts a person like Morris to step up and do something? Experts on bystanders, empathy and heroic action have ideas.

Invisible pressures warp split-second decisions about helping

Most people say they would help a stranger in an emergency — and they believe it. But in practice, they don’t, said Alison Jane Martingano, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay who studies empathy.

“It’s easy to be on our high horses, to be like, ‘Of course I would stop.’ But the numbers from the social science experiments (say), no the majority of people don’t, actually,” she said.

People’s own concerns tend to win out in split-second decisions when they see someone in distress, said Matt Langdon, the Melbourne, Australia-based president of the Heroic Imagination Project. Maybe, in Waldref’s case, drivers at the intersection were thinking it was more important to get home in time for dinner, or to make it to their kids’ basketball game.

But later, “if we sat down and talked through it, everyone would say, ‘Obviously the priority is to help the person,'” not to get to the destination in time, Langdon said.

Numerous “invisible pressures” and biases play into each person’s choice to stop, or not, Langdon said. People could be concerned about being out in the dangerously cold weather or worried for their own safety in the dark, or they could assume the slumped-over figure was homeless or drunk, and have less empathy for them.

Bystanders are also less likely to offer to help a stranger if they observe others declining to help, said Suzanne Bernier, a Toronto-based crisis management consultant. If everyone else is acting like it’s normal for a woman to lay on the sidewalk, you also might not react. And with so many cars passing through intersection, you might think someone else more capable, or with more time, will stop to help instead.

“Your normal person — a lot of them just shy away from having to take the responsibility of perhaps saving, or not, someone’s life,” Bernier said.

In a clear-cut emergency, people are more likely to jump into action. But when there’s ambiguity about what’s going on, people are often unsure whether to act.

“I always advise my students, if you’re ever in need, you need to make it ridiculously obvious that you are in need of assistance,” Martingano said.

To experts, Waldref’s death signifies a broader societal problem

What about the natural pang of empathy for someone in distress in frigid weather many of us believe we would feel?

Martingano sees two types of empathy: a quick emotional response for someone in the moment, which is hard to control, and a more deliberate decision to try to see someone else’s perspective and understand what they’re feeling, which can be trained.

“It saddens me because it means as a community we’re not putting in the effort to try and understand what somebody else might be going through — put ourselves in our shoes for a little second, and realize that they may need help,” Martingano said.

One Connecticut-based emotional intelligence consultant, Chuck Wolfe, said he understands why some people are reluctant to try to empathize with others. There are so many problems in the world, and so many upsetting things in life, that it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

“How much can you feel before you just run out of the ability to feel any more empathy for anyone?” Wolfe said.

To political scientist Kristen Monroe, Waldref’s case is a concerning answer to the question of whether a community cares about each other, or if individuals put themselves first.

“Do we feel responsibility and a kind of comradeship with the other people who live in the community, or do we feel it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and we have to take care of number one?” said Monroe, who is the director of the University of California, Irvine Ethics Center.

Bystanders who take action tend to be confident in ability to make a change

With so many who choose not to act, researchers have also studied the characteristics of people who do step in to help.

Generally, bystanders who take action see themselves as having agency and the ability to make a change in the world, Monroe said. When people don’t feel tied to their neighbors, or they feel frightened or distrustful, or they aren’t highly concerned with the wellbeing of others, they are less likely to act.

When bystanders observing a crisis say, “Somebody should do something,” the people who jump into action are the ones who reply, “Maybe I should do something,” Monroe said.

They tend to be confident and aware of their strengths, and they might stop for a stranger if they believe they have a skill that could assist, Bernier said.

She believes people can be trained to think and act in a “heroic way.” During an emergency, they know what to do, and they’re willing to do it.

Ervin Staub, a retired psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who has studied peace and violence, said children who learn and practice helping will grow up to be active bystanders. That practice could be as simple as sending kids next door to shovel the driveway of an older couple.

“The best way to create peace in the world is raise children who are caring, helpful and active bystanders,” he said.

Morris, the first bystander to get out of her car and call 911, said her reaction to stop was immediate. She understood how cold it was that day. A reporter asked her why she thought so many others before her didn’t do the same.

“Because we’re living in a time where people feel like their lives are way more precious than anybody else’s. People feel like they too busy, they don’t have compassion, or they don’t care,” she said. “There’s some cold hearted people in this world.”

A curious thing happened once Morris stopped. Other drivers started stopping too and asking if Waldref needed help. A second person dialed 911. A handful of people stayed with Waldref’s body until paramedics arrived.

Morris’s act of empathy should serve as an example to others, Wolfe said.

“Here’s someone who felt like, ‘Whatever’s going for me, I’m going to make the time, because I care deeply, even for someone I don’t know,'” he said. “You hope that the world’s filled with more people like that.”

Source: What causes bystanders to act in cases like Milwaukee bus stop death?

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