Silence of the spectators

The study of volunteer’s dilemma leads to a very puzzling dichotomy

Vaqar Khamisani November 02, 2020

The year was 1964 and the place was the suburb of Queens in New York. Kitty Genovese was coming back from work and was brutally attacked by a lone perpetrator. While the assault was underway, she cried out loudly for help, but all her screams fell on deaf ears. From surrounding buildings where the assault took place, there were dozens of eyewitnesses and yet no one stepped up to support the victim. Worst still, according to initial reports, very few attempts were made to call the police during the entire ordeal. Kitty died as a result of the battering and this crime became one of the most studied cases of that era.

Not surprisingly, a large part of the investigation was geared towards understanding the apparent indifference by the observers. Based on subsequent research, psychologists have uncovered the bystander effect which explains the reluctance of spectators to react during disturbing circumstances. An interesting aspect of the bystander effect is that it represents an outcome that witnesses do not seem to prefer personally. And yet, even then it often occurs in the form of an impasse due to the dynamics of the crowd. Therefore, the bystander effect can be dubbed as an undesired consequence which contrasts with the wishes of the individual onlookers.

In the years that followed, further investigation of the murder case uncovered several inconsistencies within the original narrative due to sensationalism practised by journalists during that time. However, irrespective of the accuracy of the details, the inaction by the witnesses that allegedly took place that night is regretful as it resulted in the worst possible outcome. In general, if we were to honestly introspect, our tendency to be a silent viewer to tragedies is not an uncommon phenomenon. It starts early, during our school years when we quietly observe young bullies target their victim and most of us just watch. Later in professional environments, we observe powerful people abuse their prey and although we might gossip but rarely raise an alarm. In the current era of social media, we are all eager to record events when someone is being wronged but hesitate to resist in person. In the worst case, we have governments with leaders in power who openly and illegally subdue their opponents to submission, whilst as citizens we stay mute and simply do nothing.

In order to gain a better understanding of the bystander effect, it is often mapped to a game called the volunteer’s dilemma which can be depicted as follows. Imagine yourself in a lounge that has a total of five seats occupied by players including yourself. Let’s now suppose that an elderly person walks into the room and stands in a corner nearby since there are no available chairs. In terms of this being a game setting, we could assign points to various states. For example, we can say that sitting on the chair is worth ten (10) points, whereas, standing and waiting would be worth about five (5) points. However, the worst would be a zero (0) point for a state in which we continue to occupy the chair in the presence of a visibly challenged senior who is struggling to stand. This low score is mainly because the moral burden we would experience in that situation would outweigh the comfort of occupying the chair.

Hence, as the elderly citizen walks into the room, all seated participants would simultaneously move to a state with zero (0) points. However, for everyone to fare better, it would require only a single player to offer their seat to the senior individual. But herein lies the dilemma, the one that offers their seat would receive five (5) points, whereas, the free riders will each get the maximum ten (10) points. In a nutshell, the predicament is that all the onlookers would very much prefer the old person to get comfortable, but they would rather have someone else make the sacrifice instead of them. If we imagine this game being played repeatedly, the one that mostly offers a seat would stand to lose and all others will have a higher chance to win.

To ascertain the best possible approach for a repeated play of volunteer’s dilemma, researchers use an equilibrium attributed to the famous mathematician John Nash who is portrayed in the movie: A Beautiful Mind. It turns out that in order to win this recurrent game, a player should volunteer with lower propensity as the number of competitors increase. This amazing conclusion explains what psychologists call the diffusion of responsibility syndrome in which individuals feel less accountable in the presence of a large audience. Therefore, the overall result is that people find themselves reluctant to react in public situations since the burden to respond is believed to be distributed across all the observers.

Additionally, in the presence of a sizable crowd, we often feel confident that the chance of at least one individual to intervene is high given the large number of onlookers. For instance, in our scenario the senior citizen required just one out of five players to give up their seating. Hence, the elderly person would expect that if there are more people in the room, the likelihood of that to happen would be higher. However, if we work out the volunteer’s dilemma mathematics a wee bit more, the resultant conclusion is a complete opposite to this intuition. In other words, the probability of someone to offer their seat is higher if less people are present in the room. Hence, if there are large number of witnesses viewing a distressful situation, there is a fair bit of chance that no one really will step up to help.

Overall, the study of volunteer’s dilemma leads to a very puzzling dichotomy. Consider an awful situation being viewed by a large crowd in which every person sincerely wishes to help. Yet, individual rational chemistry leads to the diffusion of responsibility and that creates an impasse which results in nobody stepping up to support. At times this worrying analysis, which is based on game theory, could also raise some doubts. For example, if all the onlookers are mere logical participants, how could their interplay lead to the bystander effect which is grossly suboptimal? Unfortunately, this happens because a rational approach by design is opportunistic from an individual’s own perspective and that often undermines achieving of good holistic outputs. Optimistically speaking, we would hope that an ideal result will emerge due to everyone looking after their own self-interest, however, disparate collection of local optimums does not always result in a global maximum.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 3rd, 2020.

Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.


Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ

Most Read