Last night as I was walking to the grocery store, I passed an old man laying on the ground, wearing half-torn clothes, and disheveled appearance. It was cold, about 45° Fahrenheit (7° Celsius), and whatever he was wearing is not enough to keep anything warm, let alone an elderly man.
“Excuse me, son,” he said. It was late and I was the only person walking in the area. I looked at him and said “are you talking to me?” He sat up. I noticed his amputated hand. “Yes,” he said, “would you please give me some money for food? If you don’t trust that I’ll use it for food, please buy the food yourself and give it to me. I haven’t eaten in 2 days.” “Okay,” I said, “where are your sons and daughters? Don’t you have any?” He told me his story.
“Back in the day, I was a carpenter. I had my own small shop. Business wasn’t big for me. I was only able to make enough money to feed my family of 3 boys and my wife and have a small amount left to recycle within the shop for materials. My business wasn’t big enough to hire any workers. I worked by myself. One night, a bunch of rowdy kids broke into my shop, stole whatever cash they found, and burned it down as they left. There wasn’t any insurance since I barely had enough money for living expenses and basic materials for the shop. A friend in business offered to hire me to work in his shop. That worked well for a number of years. One day I had an accident. I tripped and my hand hit the table saw. After that, I’m fit for nothing. My sons gave me money for a while, but they stopped after my wife passed away a few years ago. We lived in a rental apartment and I was evacuated for not paying after my sons stopped providing money. None of them is willing to host me, either. Eventually, I became inhabitant of the streets. Every now and then a generous person would donate some food or money. The past 5 days were hard as no one have donated anything. All the few donated money I had finished 2 days ago. and I haven’t eaten since then. People have been callus the past few days and no one is willing to help. I beg you son. Give me something to eat.”
I looked at him and said “you said no one has helped you lately, why does it have to be me? Besides, you should have known better than to keep your business small. You should have not been selfish and small-thinking. You should have spent more on your business to grow and less on your family for living. Find someone else to help you. I’ll help once others start helping before me. I don’t want to be the first one nor do I want to be the only one.”
As I was about to walk away, he clung to my khaki pants saying “please son, I beg you.” I noticed my pants were stained by his dirty hands. I was furious! I pulled my leg to free it from his nasty hand and he got a kick on the face in the process. He started weeping with annoying cough.
Can you believe this dude?! He thinks I’m a fool and expects me to pay the expense of his stupid life decisions.
Now that I have gotten your attention and aroused your feelings, I must admit that none of the above really happened. It’s all a figment of my imagination. Its purpose is to deliver a point, because, apparently, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is too subtle.
The thought to write this piece has come to me after seeing comments from different individuals that are along the lines of “if others are not helping, why should we help first.” It is rather interesting the scale of choice of those individuals.
This attitude mirrors a phenomenon known as the Bystander Effect. This phenomenon is best identified in situations of short physical proximity between the victim, perpetrator, and the passersby. One of the major playing variables in the bystander effect is the diffusion of responsibility. This means that in the presence of a large number of people, each person assumes one of the others will take action, thus the actual action of helping never takes place. I admit that I could not find scientific papers to back the extrapolation that I am about to lay out, so take it with a grain of salt.
As per the diffusion of responsibility definition, the larger the number of people present at and aware of the scene, the less responsibility a person assumes in making an action to correct it. In this day and age, all cause-and-effect are on global scale thanks to the Internet. So we take this concept and expand the number of bystanders not to 4, 10, 20, or 50, but to ~5 billion (or milliard in long scale). Everyone’s share of responsibility is now at 2*10-8% (that is 0.00000002%). The phrase “I couldn’t care less” fits this figure quite nicely. In addition to the large number of bystanders in the international crisis we’re assuming, one must not forget to factor in the apathy introduced by the physical distance. There are accounts of the bystander effect present among people within meters of an incident and they did not take the few steps to correct it; thousands of kilometers are not going to motivate more people to make any move either. We all know of the quote “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” There’s at least one psychological phenomenon in that. We, humans, tend to help more if there’s a face, an identifiable person, to the crisis; that is, if the the entire crisis is summed up into that one person. This is called identifiable victim effect. You can see it when humanitarian organizations make ads that revolve entirely around a single person with a face, name, maybe list some hope, fears, hobbies, etc.. The identifiable victim effect does not seem to play a big part in bystanders who are within a relatively short physical distance from the victim. Crises on global scale will present less of the identifiable victim effect, thus lowering their chances even further to receive help.
The intent is not to depress you. This is meant to shed light on damaging behaviour and form of thinking. The goal of this is to identify those and combat them. The goal of this is for you to eventually catch those thoughts and act on them. We should always reevaluate our stances. Now that we know how we are deceived by a subliminal trickery, we can question the thoughts we know are related to the frozen state of inaction and consider the option of taking action.
The story at the beginning is partially inspired from Robert D. Hare’s account of a psychopath who killed an old man in a burglary act in his book Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us (P. 91):
I was rummaging around when this old geezer comes down stairs and … uh … he starts yelling and having a fucking fit … so I pop him one in the, uh, head and he still doesn’t shut up. So I give him a chop to the throat and he … like … staggers back and falls on the floor. He’s gurgling and making sounds like a stuck pig! [laughs] and he’s really getting on my fucking nerves so I … uh … boot him a few times in the head. That shut him up … I’m pretty tired by now so I grab a few beers from the fridge and turn on the TV and fall asleep. The cops woke me up [laughs].