The Blind Bystander Effect

The Bystander Effect is a name for the behavior of groups of people individually or collectively ignoring or choosing not to respond to a situation because each person assumes someone else will or already has.  Onlookers might not respond out of fear of the consequences or just not wanting to get involved.  The law (in the United States) even supports this response.  On day one of bar review, we were reminded of first year torts and that there's no legal duty to strangers.  There are exceptions, such as for certain pre-existing relationships, but generally a gold medal swimmer or anyone else is free to walk by a drowning child without diving in or calling for help.  The most famous example of the Bystander Effect is the murder of Kitty Genovese.  Thirty eight onlookers failed to call the police or react as Ms. Genovese was chased and stabbed to death in Queens in 1964.  As Malcolm Gladwell summarizes in The Tipping Point on page 28, “… the lesson is not that no one called despite the fact that thirty-eight people heard her scream; it’s that no one called because thirty-eight people heard her scream.” 

Recently, I was reminded of the bystander effect after sending a a request via email to a BCC’ed group of colleagues and receiving no response or acknowledgment (if you're reading this, don't worry about it, everything worked out just fine).  A closer analogy to the Genovese situation would have occurred if I had CC’ed the group instead, allowing each recipient to see all other recipients, and then received no response.  However, that would have introduced the complexities of the recipients’ relationships with one another, a situation I wanted to avoid.  It was also a personal matter and using CC would destroy the confidentiality of the recipients, deterring a response.  In other words, a recipient might spend more time thinking about the other members on the list and not on the question I posed, among other things.  Also, the message could have been sent to one or one hundred people, and I wanted to avoid any considerations of urgency or exclusivity.  Social secrets are the blessing and curse of humanity.  Using BCC seemed like a good way to procure an answer while keeping social ramifications to a minimum.

So what did I do wrong? Well, that’s a loaded question… Perhaps I’ll never know.  At least in this situation, there are just too many factors involved to pinpoint an answer.  First and most obviously, I might have selected the wrong recipients.  Perhaps they simply had no answers.  More cynically, maybe no one cared.  Perhaps I chose too many or too few people.  Given the personal nature of the request, my recipients might have felt uncomfortable extending our relationship to even offer a suggestion.  Also, people are busy and emails have a tendency of getting buried. Who knows.

The explanation I choose to believe is that a sort of “blind bystander effect” set in, where each person assumed that a) there were other recipients (it sure would have been tricky if I sent an email and BCC’ed only one person!), b) all the other recepients are similarly situated professionals, and c) someone else would provide an answer since it was the type of request professionals of the sort frequently receive.  The bottom line: when it’s personal, get personal and don't risk becoming a victim of the Blind Bystander Effect.

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