Perspectives | Justice

Why do people stand by while others are in danger?

By - 13.07.2017

A look at the bystander effect and whether the law can increase interventions.

Almost two weeks ago, a very unfortunate event happened in the city of Gjilan. An elderly man passed away as a result of his weak health, high temperatures and lack of people willing to stop and help him.

The situation is one from the movies — where the villains pass by and leave the victim to suffer while looking and laughing at him, although the passersby did not laugh, they barely even had the courtesy to look at him. (Yes, I watched the video).

The tragedy was afterwards followed by anger, despair and outbursts that took place mainly on social media. Nevertheless it was obvious that people were affected by this event and as such the tragedy made a social impact and gathered much attention. The justice system also got involved in the equation due to the stipulations made in Kosovo’s Criminal Code.

Are people more likely to help if they see it as their duty rather than just goodwill?

This event triggered a long-needed discussion on people’s morale and their willingness to help, but also on their legal duty to do so. I have followed the discussions closely without participating in them, and as a result I want to explore two main issues in this article: the (un)willingness to help, explained through the bystander effect, and the legal duty to help.

What are the similarities and differences between the two and are people more likely to help if they see it as their duty rather than just goodwill? That is, of course, not a question I might offer a response to — but is something that we must all question and think about continuously.

The bystander effect

The bystander effect is a well known sociological concept that has been widely used in the field of criminology as well. The idea behind it is that people help others more when they are alone rather than when there are bystanders present. Over the years, this concept has become established, but its initial stage starts with the classic 1968 work of Darley and Latane.

If not on a daily, then on a weekly or monthly basis, we witness news about victims of either crimes or mere accidents not getting the help they needed, despite the fact that there were many bystanders present and able to provide it. But that is not the only scenario when the bystander effect occurs. If we take a random example from our everyday life, let’s say when someone drops a book or something else on the floor, we note that people are less likely to help the person pick the book up if there are many other bystanders present.

This has also been validated by research by Latane and Dabbs in 1975. To put it in very simple terms, no matter if one is a victim of crime or of an accident, or just simply needs help with something they dropped, all kinds of help requests become vulnerable to the bystander effect.

Now, in order to be able to grasp a small bit of what the bystander effect is and what causes it, we should look at the ‘normative values’ of people’s behavior; in plain terms, and adapting the concept that Hart and Miethe use, this is the shared evaluations of what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior in a particular social context.

Would the epilogue be different if there was nobody but one person passing by?

Both sociologists and criminologists, for different types of both criminal and conventional behaviors, have long and widely used normative explanations — they are found in almost all aspects of our everyday life, starting with the rules of driving behavior, manners, rules of fair play and so on.

Rightfully, various normative rules fall in the area of helping behavior. The precise norms of helping behavior tend to offer explanations for the occurrence, as well as the level, of bystander intervention during certain social contexts.

The explanation is usually offered as a constraint. “Minding one’s own business” is definitely one of the normative immediate constraints that is well ingrained in our everyday life and serves as a very important interrogative for decision making when we find ourselves under conditions of uncertainty. Because at the end of the day, almost all bystanders are outsiders who do not fully understand what is going on and do not really grasp the entirety of the nature of either the dispute (when we talk about a fight for example) or the tragic event.

Rational thinking in situations like these tends to decline temporarily due to the sudden uncertainty of potential danger. Under these circumstances, the normative rule of “minding one’s own business” leads most bystanders to avoid getting involved and to probably just pass by.

The question that arises in relation to the case in Gjilan is whether this had an impact on people choosing not to stop and to help the deceased? Was it because the drivers driving by saw that there were pedestrians and figured someone would stop and help him? Was it because the pedestrians saw that there were a lot of cars and vans on the street and thought that eventually someone who actually had the means to transport him would stop and help him? Would the epilogue be different if there was nobody but one person passing by?

The best way to get a small glimpse of these responses is by relying on the legal investigation and what it concludes.

Illegal to do nothing

Despite the fact that it is crucial to understand this behavior from the sociological and criminological perspective, the legal framework in Kosovo adds even more clarity.

The fact that the Criminal Code of Kosovo criminalizes refraining from providing help as an offence shows that the bystander effect is more than just a sociological phenomenon. It is a phenomenon that is penalized and as such people doing it may find themselves held legally responsible.

The Code stipulates the criminalization of refraining from providing help under Article 191, Paragraph 1 that explicitly states:

Whoever refrains from providing help to a person whose life is directly endangered, even though he or she could have acted without serious risk of endangering himself or herself or another person shall be punished by imprisonment of up to one (1) year.”

The law further stipulates that when refraining from providing help results in the death of the endangered person (as in the case at hand), the perpetrator (the passersby in this case) shall be punished by imprisonment of one to eight years.

This goes to show that in Kosovo it is not only up to moral and personal ethical willingness to help others, but also in certain cases this is regulated by law.

After the tragic event the media was quick to spread the news and citizens were willing to share their comments on it.

It is unfortunate that it took a tragic event such as the death of a person for society to realize that providing help to those in need when passing them is not only a moral duty but also a legal one.

The first statement of the case prosecutor became viral. When asked about any responsibility of the passersby in relation to the event, the prosecutor’s first response was to rationalize why the passersby might have had different reasons for not stopping and therefore assuming that the case may become very difficult to investigate.

Further down the road, one person has been arrested in relation to refraining from offering help to the deceased, which is in line with the expansion of the statement by the prosecutor, who now shows that the investigation has been going smoothly and the prosecution is working on identifying the rest of the passersby who did not offer help. Following this expansion of statement, two more people have been put under house arrest in relation to the event. Surprisingly enough, the prosecution only mentions those who were seen driving vehicles on that street and says nothing about laypersons on the street that passed by the deceased and did not stop.

It is unfortunate that it took a tragic event such as the death of a person for society to realize that providing help to those in need when passing them is not only a moral duty but also a legal one.

Does this mean that people are more inclined to help others when faced with the threat of prosecution, rather than by relying solely on good ethics and morals and a sense of humanity? That is definitely open to debate, as it has been for many decades.  

There is not a lot that one can conclude when writing about an event as sensitive and tragic as this one. The tragic event in Gjilan happened as a result of a combination of factors — one of them being people refraining from providing help.

The case at hand has made many people realize that helping others is not solely a moral requirement but also a legal duty under our law, with one person already arrested, two put under house arrest, and others potentially to follow.

Will this make any difference? I am not sure I would go that far. What I know for sure though is the importance of experiencing the birth of a new wave of asking responsibility from the right source — the prosecution — and that is something that ought to be further developed in our society.

Media and society did not wait until the case became closed, or went to trial, to then ask the judge about the result. They went to the source and asked them for answers, while at the same time educating readers/citizens about the law and their obligations.