Why didn’t the spectators stop Derek Chauvin? Here’s what the research really shows about spectator engagement
A camera image of a police force shows bystanders, including Darnella Frazier, third from right, filming a Minneapolis policeman pressing his knee to George Floyd’s neck. Minneapolis Police Department via AP, File The most powerful evidence for the prosecution in Derek Chauvin’s trial was a video showing the then Minneapolis cop pinning a pleading George Floyd to the ground while kneeling on his neck until he is silent and then dies. On the witness stand, the teenager who captured the incident on her smartphone, Darnella Frazier, 17, expressed regret that she had not done more on the day of the crime. As a professor whose main area of research is the application of psychology and game theory to ethics, I believe that Frazier’s regret at not intervening physically sheds light on two major points: First, a witness to A troubling situation that is in a group may feel a lesser sense of personal responsibility than a single individual. Second, someone in a group of people who can see themselves may nonetheless feel responsible for taking action. The spectator effect The feeling of reduced personal responsibility towards the members of a group has come to be known as the “spectator effect” – a phenomenon first described following a famous and infamous case . In a 1964 front page article titled “37 Who Saw The Murder Did Not Call The Police; Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shock Inspector, ”The New York Times told the gruesome story of the midnight sexual assault and murder of 28-year-old bartender Kitty Genovese near her apartment building. In recent years, academics and the New York Times itself have concluded that the report contained significant errors – the number of witnesses was below 37 and several people called police. Reflecting on the notorious case long before these errors were known, social psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley questioned whether it would be possible to study bystanders’ failure to act in laboratory experiments. In a 1970 book, Darley and Latane summarized that the chance that an individual will act in a pro-social or useful way is less when the responsibility is distributed among a number of people. Later studies also confirmed that people are more likely to take action when they feel they are solely responsible for doing so. The spectator effect has been reformulated by game theorists as the “dilemma of the volunteer”. In the volunteer dilemma, one person or group of people will avoid discomfort if one of them takes low-cost pro-social action, like performing first aid or fixing a blocked drain. Anyone acting alone has good reason to act – but if there is a crowd of, say, 20 people, the chance that they will do nothing and let someone else volunteer increases. In George Floyd’s case, the spectator effect was complicated by the power dynamics at play. Chauvin was an armed white policeman, and Frazier and the other spectators were unarmed civilians who were mostly black, like George Floyd. himself. Given this, it’s reasonable to wonder whether Frazier, had she been the only civilian witness, would have gone beyond recording a video to physically intervene – like trying to remove Chauvin from Floyd. And it’s also reasonable to question whether she or a bystander should physically intervene in a situation where it could be extremely risky. What Makes People Act After Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter, people gathered on the street where he killed George Floyd. Brandon Bell / Getty Images What needs to be explained in Frazier’s behavior – and that of a number of other witnesses who also videotaped or called on Chauvin to stop – isn’t why they didn’t not taken drastic and risky physical action, but why they took the necessary steps to record videos and yell at Chauvin to stop. To explain their pro-social action, an advanced line of research on the behavior of witnesses in the face of disturbing scenes is useful. This research suggests that having more witnesses increases rather than decreases the chances of intervention and that prosocial intervention of at least some members of a group is the norm. A 2008 analysis by social psychologist Daniel Stalder of previous studies found that while the bystander effect was real, larger group size increased the likelihood that at least one person in the group would perform a prosocial intervention. More recently, a 2019 article by psychologist Richard Philpot and four co-authors found that someone is more likely to act when there are more witnesses to public conflict. They also found that intervention was the norm: 90.7% of public conflicts involved one or more witnesses performing a prosocial intervention, with an average of 3.8 witnesses intervening in each conflict. Compared to previous research, their study is particularly compelling, as it was not based on laboratory studies, but on examination of surveillance camera footage of actual public conflicts between civilians (and not between police and civilians). taking place in overcrowded urban streets. The research was carried out in three countries: South Africa, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. [Get the best of The Conversation, every weekend. Sign up for our weekly newsletter.] As Philpot and her co-authors put it, in a line that foreshadows what Frazier and several others close to her have done: “We found that in nine out of 10 conflicts, at least one person – but usually several – did something to help. “In trying to understand spectator ethics, the troubling phenomenon of diffusion of responsibility remains relevant. But it is also important to understand the more positive result that a pro-social intervention like Frazier’s by one or more people in public conflict witness groups is common. This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing the ideas of academics and experts. Written by: Wayne Eastman, Rutgers University Read more: Police officers accused of brutal violence often have a history of citizen complaints Derek Chauvin’s trial: 3 questions America needs to be aware of ask about seeking racial justice in court Wayne Eastman does not work, consult, own shares or receive funding from any business or organization that would benefit from this article and has not disclosed any relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.