There’s one story in particular that I tell more often than any other – especially to people I’ve only just met. It’s a story about a highly influential murder. Violent murders are an odd topic to bring up with strangers you barely know, but it’s an important story and one that a young Peter Parker would have been well served by.
*Trigger warning: This story involves rape and murder.*
Back in the 1960s in New York, a woman was out for a stroll through her local park when she was attacked by man wielding a knife. She cried out for help – but no one came to her aid and she was raped and murdered. Where things get even more sinister though, is that the place where she was killed was surrounded by apartment building overlooking the park. When police canvased the area for witnesses, they found a total of 38 witnesses. While not all of them saw the crime take place – or even realised what was going on, not a single one called the police.
The psychology profession flipped its lid over this story. How could this happen? What circumstances cause onlookers to be passive and inactive when someone is in peril? The term that psychology coined was ‘the bystander effect.’ This term explains a tendency for responsibility to be diffused across the large group. The thought process is along the lines of “there’s so many other people here, someone else must have already called the police” or “no one else is doing anything, it must be under control.” Or perhaps a more cynical reading would be, “it’s not my problem.”
You see where I’m going with this? In Spider-Man’s origin story, Peter Parker bumps into a gun-wielding burglar. This is before he’s officially taken on his hero mantle and he lets the burglar slip on by. The story has several variations; in the 2002 movie version, Peter lets the burglar escape to spite the wrestling ring manager who refused to pay him his full cut, telling him, “I missed the part where that’s my problem.” The cruel irony being that this same burglar goes on to jack his Uncle Ben’s car and shoots and kills Ben in the process. Thus Spider-Man is born and he learns something about great power and great responsibility.
Kind of grim, sure – but there’s an upside to the bystander effect. Psychologists found that when their study participants were told or knew about the bystander effect, these people would intentionally subvert the bystander effect and would be the first people to help out. Remember, the first follower is the first leader – and if everyone is conscious of the bystander effect it means people can get aid as soon as possible, especially in serious situations where minutes count. There’s no problem when two people call emergency services – but there’s a big problem when no one calls. So feel free to exploit this quirk in human behaviour. Don’t be afraid to be a little bit less like Peter Parker and a little bit more like Spider-Man.
EDIT: Frig, how could I forget that scene in The Avengers when the older German man stands up to Loki.You want to be that person.