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Have you ever wondered why it is possible for a human being to watch another human being suffer under the hands of a bully and do nothing to intervene? Back in 1968, John Darley and his associates came up with the famous theory of “Bystander Intervention”, which still remains relevant even until today. In Darley’s original paper, titled Bystander Intervention In emergencies: Diffusion of Responsibility, he portrays how the bystander effect occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation. Darley and his peers attributed this phenomena to the perceived diffusion of responsibility (bystanders are more likely to intervene if there are few or no other witnesses) and social influence (bystanders observe and evaluate the behavior of the other people around them to determine how to act). The more the bystanders there are, the less the likelihood that any of them will intervene in the situation. This occurs because each individual is either too scared to intervene or thinks that the others are already doing something about the situation and any interference from them would be redundant. On the other hand, if bullying occurs in front of a single person then it is his or her responsibility to come to the victim’s aid, but when bullying happens in front of a group of people then the responsibility is shared equally among them. The theory of bystander intervention is no doubt one of the monumental concepts in the field of psychology, but how does it apply to the modern day situation of bullying in high schools? And what would Paul Gomberg, the author of “The Fallacy of Philanthropy” view the situation?
Robert Thornberg and his team conducted a study in two schools in the United States to come up with a conceptual framework of bystander motivation to intervene in bullying situations, based on Darley’s theory of bystander intervention. According to Thornberg’s paper, “Bullying” can be termed as repetitive aggression or harassment directed towards another person, often one who is powerless against the bullies. When bullying occurs there, are many factors and variables in the environment that either encourage or discourage the bully. (247-248) In schools, where bullying is common, bystanders usually serve three types of roles; reinforcers, outsiders and defenders. Reinforcers are those who support the actions of the bully either directly by backing him or her up or indirectly by doing nothing to dissuade his or her actions. Whereas, outsiders are those who remain uninvolved with the situation and defenders support the victim and try to either dissuade or stop the bully, often these are the kids with the most empathy.
According to some students, bullying could evoke different emotional reactions from bystanders, and these emotional reactions (empathy, fear of being victimized, audience excitement) appeared to influence their decision making process of intervening or non-intervening (Thornberg, 249).
This statement shows a flaw in human’s ethics, how we always wait for the cue to act based on external factors even when we know that intervening is the right thing to do. This also supports Darley’s theory on social influence. Another main external factor that influences a student’s decision whether or not to intervene is his or her own interpretation of harm in the bullying situation. “Some students described times when bystanders chose not to intervene because the bullying was believed to cause limited harm and did not require action”. (Thornberg, 249) This suggests that before a student decides to intervene in a situation, he or she would weigh the pros and cons and the consequences of doing so. In other words, whether or not the act of intervention would worth the risk of having himself getting bullied as well.
In addition, social evaluation also plays a big role in determining a student’s action. “Whereas a close relationship with the victim was associated as a motive to help, a close relationship with the bully and no relationship with the victim were discussed as motives for not helping the victim.” (Thornberg, 250) This reflects how children often value friendship before ethical values. “It kinda depends on the person [the victim]. Like, if they don’t like the person, they might laugh. But if they’re friends with them, then they try to, like, help them out or whatever.” (Thornberg, 249) Many students choose not to help a person who they dislike, even when the bullies are clearly wrong, because their thought process are not yet advanced enough to the point of evaluating the rightness or wrongness of a biased situation yet.
Moving on to Paul Gomberg’s The Fallacy of Philanthropy. According to Gomberg, philanthropy entails the combination and application of the considered problems from a calamity to our duty of helping the victims. Such assimilation is wrong and it infers to the fallacy of philanthropy. The philanthropists’ source of the argument can be considered wrong. The philanthropist’s argument is based on the proposition that we have the duty to deal with the plight of poor people. The obligation may be referred to as the philanthropic logic. The philanthropist argues that, the moral duty is implied in the morality already accepted. According to Peter Singer, no one should deny the obligation of helping a drowning child. Singer suggests that “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it.” (Gomberg, 31) Using Gomberg’s drowning child analogy, the argument makes it a socially unacceptable for a professor to walk past a drowning child without offering any help, so that he can avoid soaking his clothes or getting late for the class. Most people would help a drowning child because they feel obliged to help and the failure to do so would result in a moral flaw. They would save a drowning child because of the assumption and conclusion that the child’s life is endangered and simply by saving the child, the threat that endangers the child’s life is averted. Thus, only when the people can clearly see that there is a considerable threat to a person’s life that they will take the appropriate action to help. However, if people do not experience a perceived threat to a person’s life, they may not take the appropriate measures to help, even in the situations that actually require some intervention such as poverty and bullying.
During the emergency situations, people are more compelled and obliged to help than they are in non-emergency situations. For instance, actions to rescue a drowning child could be because people are generally more likely to act in emergencies – they find emergency situations exciting. A person finding a child drowning may act in an excited manner because they find the situation fascinating and unusual. As for the kinds of situations that seem to elicit any amazement like the cases of bullying in schools, the obligation to act fades. This reflects the moral deficiency that is present in most people. The institutions to help may be misguided and fail to originate from genuine reasons. The ethical culture in our society encourages us to assimilate the consequences of some certain problems and calamities, and if they prove relevant, people are more obliged to help. A drowning child is seen to be needing actual help. Thus, most people are heavily compelled to help. In contrast, bullying in the schools may be considered as having inconsequential problems. Hence, people are more reluctant to act to prevent the situation from getting more severe.
According to Thornberg, the motivation for bystanders to intervene in bullying circumstances rely on the way that bystanders evaluate and define the situation, their agency, and the social context that the situation fits. The extent that the bystanders perceive the bullying as a threat to the life of the ones getting bullied plays a role in influencing their actions to intervene and help. The circumstances in which bullying is perceived to cause significant and harmful effects generally receive more intervention than those considered to pose less harm. During the study, one student mentioned,
‘‘I mean, like, if it’s out of hand, somebody might go and tell the teacher, but if it’s something like really nothing, then nobody will tell on nobody. Nobody will be a snitch over something little, but if it’s something big, you will tell.’’ (Thornberg, 249) The findings of the research are very consistent with the perspectives of Gomberg on the philanthropy fallacy. For a drowning child, people are compelled to act to avert the threat. However, for a child being bullied, people may not be as compelled to act. This is because most of the bystanders evaluate and perceive the situation and less harmful to the victim. It is also possible that the bystanders who failed to act see bullying as a routine phenomenon that does not usually cause significant harm. Therefore, what motivates people to act in a certain situation depends largely on their evaluation of how harmful that particular situation is.
As previously mentioned, the decision made by the bystanders to intervene or not in bullying situations, was largely influenced by their emotional reactions to the event. According to Gomberg, emotional excitement strongly influenced bystanders to intervene in the drowning situation. Also, the feeling of empathy from the bystanders may make them feel sorry for the victim, and therefore, decide to act. This argument is also shown in Thornberg’s study, “My friends and I usually just stand up for that person even if we don’t like them very much . . . because I feel really bad for them.’’ (Thornberg, 249). Therefore, it can be said that emotional reactions, rather than ethical or moral intuitions motivate people to act in different ways in the situations demanding help.
This contrasting difference in people’s reactions to bullying situations and their reactions to the case of the drowning child shows that truly, humanity is influenced by many factors, most of which results from the assimilation of the consequences from human problems and suffering. Gomberg’s views on the philanthropy, when applied to the phenomena of bystander intervention in the case of bullying implies that the fallacy of philanthropy predominates people’s attitude towards humanity. The action of humanity is not inherent because people have to evaluate and consider many factors before they choose to help or not to help others who are in need of their help. The philanthropic fallacy demonstrates that there is a lack of spontaneity in people’s actions to help others and alleviate suffering.
Adopting Gomberg’s view to help explain this psychological study on bystander intervention on bullying might not be entirely accurate. Firstly, Gomberg’s paper was written back in 2002, while the study was conducted ten years after. Ten years might not seem like a long time, but with the rapid rise of the internet and technology, people’s perception of ideas and situations like this might have changed as well. Also, Gomberg’s ideas do not take account of long-term consequences. Instead of acting fast in solving a problem, people waste a lot time deciding whether the problem needs to be solved. Some of the consequences of human suffering are insidious and even if they may not be obvious in the short run. For instance, bullying has several long term effects, such as depression, most of which may not be obvious. However, most bystanders view bullying as a normal phenomenon that do not need immediate attention. As a consequence, they fail to intervene on these bullying incidences.
By viewing the issue of bullying through the lens of Gomberg’s drowning child analogy, it is clear to see that people’s decisions to intervene are largely influenced by their emotional components. The tendency to act philanthropically in situations considered emergent causes people to neglect other problems that are considered ‘non-urgent’. Most of the unsolved problems may lead to negative impacts, although it may be gradual. Indeed, the philanthropic fallacy needs to be addressed and corrective measures to be taken to abandon such ideology.
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