January 26, 2011

The Bystander Effect

Filed under: MiscellAnnia — Ann @ 8:44 pm

During psychology class today we were having a discussion about the “bystander effect” — that particular phenomenon which, in 1964, led to 38 people ignoring the screams of Kitty Genovese when she was being brutally murdered. The professor was showing other famous case studies on the effect and asking us questions.

At one point a girl sitting just behind me raised her hand and provided a brief but insightful answer. When the professor asked her to repeat what she’d just said but loudly enough for the entire class (of 61 students) to hear, the girl shook her head, smiled shyly and said, “Never mind then,” adding, “I’m not the kind of person who speaks out.”

At which point my brain made a noise like the arm of a record player scratching over the entire surface of an LP. I was horrified, hearing a 20-year-old female college student announcing to the world that she doesn’t, can’t and/or won’t add her voice to any discussion. I wanted to stop the class right there and impart 30+ years of experience to her on the spot. I wanted to get all wise-old-auntie on her: “Oh honey. You have a big noisy mind in there, cooking up all sorts of fabulous ideas and points of view and opinions, and the most important thing happening in this room right now is happening between your ears. You said something good, and meaningful and worth sharing! But even if your comment hadn’t been that interesting, you should have said it anyway. Loudly. From now on, I want you to speak up and speak out. I want you to look around the room while you do so, make eye contact with a few people, smile confidently. Let them know that you, [insert name here], plan to be taken seriously. That you have something to say. You let them know you have a VOICE and you plan to use it so they’d better listen up or else. I’m talkin’ here; you shut up!” Like that.

Of course I didn’t. Didn’t stop the class; didn’t change her mind or her life. I can’t. She has to learn that lesson in her own time and in her own way — if she ever does. If she doesn’t, she’s going to spend an entire lifetime being just another bystander.


  1. Maybe that wasn’t the time, but it might be worth talking to her one on one. She might need an auntie. I know I did at her age.

    Comment by Alana — January 26, 2011 @ 10:12 pm

  2. You made the right choice. We can’t move “clients” before they are ready to move and to try will only cause a rapture of the relationship. But what you can do is spend the rest of the semester “quietly” working to boost her self-esteem so that her voice grows from the internal understanding of her inherent worth.

    Comment by Brian — January 26, 2011 @ 10:24 pm

  3. I agree with Alana. Next time you see her, be Auntie Lady Ann. Everyone needs that meaningful person in their lives to help change them. You might be the very thing that helps her find her voice. I wish someone had done that for me when I was 20 (and didn’t want to be heard either).

    Great story by the way–sorry I missed this the other day!

    Comment by Heidi — January 28, 2011 @ 2:19 pm

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