Mumbai has the reputation of being one of the safest Indian cities for women. The murder of two young men who tried to protect their female friends from sexual harassers is a blow to this reputation. Citizens are up in arms demanding justice. There is even the mandatory Facebook campaign.
Yet, Mumbaikars stood as mute spectators when it mattered, as Reuben Fernandez and Keenan Santos were stabbed on a crowded street. Many wonder how such public apathy can occur in a public spirited city which is famous for how large numbers of people help each other during the heavy downpours every year that bring the city to a standstill.
Social psychologists have a term for this: the bystander effect. It depicts how people are less likely to offer help when they are in a group than when they are alone.
A file photo depicting women suffering from sexual harassment during everyday life (Bloomberg)
It’s also called the Genovese syndrome, after Kitty Genovese, whose death led to such research. She was sexually assaulted and murdered in an attack which lasted 35 minutes. Though the attack took place near her home in New York City, none of the neighbors responded to her cry for help or stopped the attack. While few ignored it by brushing it aside as a lovers’ squabble, those who understood the gravity of incident didn’t report it to police or try to stop it, thinking somebody else would do it.
This incident led social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané to conduct a series of experiments to study why people do not always offer aid at the scene of an emergency like what happened in Mumbai. The results led the two to attribute two main reasons for such indifferent behavior of the public, which can also explain what happened in Mumbai recently.
The two reasons are:
Pluralistic ignorance: This occurs when we place ourselves in an ambiguous situation and plan our move based on what others do as we are not sure whether we are witnessing a crime. Upon seeing nobody reacting to this unfortunate incident, Mumbaikars might have assumed it to be a fight among friends who might have been drunk.
Diffusion of responsibility: This occurs when in spite of knowing crime has occurred, we face a diminished sense of personal responsibility in the presence of others by assuming that someone else will help, which results in ultimately nobody volunteering for help. Reading the account by friends of the murders suggests that this is more likely to have happened in the case of Keenan and Reuben.
The first lot can claim ignorance. The second lot does not even have that reason to offer. They shunned their moral responsibility as citizens. Governments must think about why people do not either try to stop a crime or report it. The way witnesses are harassed and the long legal procedures also act bolster public apathy.