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Portland stabbing: What we learned about bystander effect

Micah Fletcher, a victim of a stabbing attack on a light rail train that left two dead, watches as suspect Jeremy Christian is arraigned in Multnomah County Circuit Court in Portland, Ore., Tuesday, May 30, 2017.
Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian via AP, Pool
Micah Fletcher, a victim of a stabbing attack on a light rail train that left two dead, watches as suspect Jeremy Christian is arraigned in Multnomah County Circuit Court in Portland, Ore., Tuesday, May 30, 2017.

Prof. Cheryl Kaiser of the University of Washington discusses the bystander effect and whether to step into a dangerous situation to help a stranger.  

Bill Radke: Why don't people step in, usually?

Kaiser: Ironically, the larger the group, the less likely an individual is to stand up and do something about it.

When we're in a large crowd, a lot of people's first reaction is to freeze. They look at the people around them; they're all freezing too. And what we do is read from the faces of others who are inactive that maybe this isn't a problem. Maybe somebody else will step in.

Radke: Then there is the fear of what happened in Portland. "If I step in, I could get hurt, too."

Kaiser: That fear is a reasonable one. The Portland incident was at the far end of the extreme in terms of clear and imminent danger, where these men stood up to protect people from hate. Oftentimes the situations may be subtler, less dangerous, but we still see this. It might be in an office where somebody expresses a bigoted remark, and nobody says anything — the fear of harm is less central there. But oftentimes you still see the same type of inaction.

Radke: How did you react to what happened in Portland, where people did step in and died?

Kaiser: As a human; it's tragic. As a psychologist who looks at these issues.

We think about these men becoming what we call "active bystanders" and having the moral courage to step forward, something we think about across history and time: People who stood up and rescued Jews during the Holocaust, for example, people who are shining examples of what it means to be active.

Radke: Will what happened in Portland inhibit or inspire people? Do you have an opinion on that?

Kaiser: In today's political climate, many people are starting to polarize in terms of where they stand.

One place where these three men stood was on fighting bigotry and identifying as moral, courageous people who care about justice, who have a multicultural identity. And when they see people in their in-group, these young women being harassed, they're going to stand up and do something about it, because it starts to affect their group, people they care about, people they include as part of what it means to be American. And I think very much it will inspire people.

Radke: It’s natural for us to wonder whether the political climate is related to individual incidents like the one in Portland. Do you have thoughts about a helpful way to think about that?

Kaiser: You're going to have variation in how people behave in a given situation.

We know a little bit about the backgrounds of these men who stood up. There's one, for example, who has a video of him talking about fighting bias through poetry. This was part of who they were.

But the political climate makes that all the more salient. As these two sides in politics polarize, we're going to see people start to stand up for their beliefs.

Radke: There’s an idea of how to react to an incident like this. You walk up to somebody being harassed — maybe you sit next to them, and you engage them in conversation, and you're ignoring the attacker. I have a little a snippet of a video along these lines that BuzzFeed put up. What do you think about this idea?

Kaiser: It's provocative. Will it work? I don't know it would throw an attacker off guard when all of a sudden their behavior is being intercepted by someone completely distracting in the conversation and taking it somewhere else.

It seems like a reasonable strategy, of course. We all walk around with our cell phones and ways to contact the police and intervene for example.

I think once people learn about bystander effect, it's one of the strongest predictors of whether or not they'll step in and do something.

Radke: That's why we're glad you've come on and told us about this professor. Thanks a lot. 

This transcript was edited for length and clarity.

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