Weekly Thoughts



How groups impact behavior

In March 1964, Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was attacked in the courtyard of her New York City apartment complex.  Unfortunately for Kitty, despite the fact that many people in the area allegedly heard her calls for help, nobody intervened and Kitty died from stab wounds sustained during the attack.  The attack received lots of press coverage.  How on earth could multiple people hear a women’s cries for help in the middle of the night and do… absolutely nothing? 

The situation resulted in increased psychological research into the so-called “bystander effect”.  As expected, when a person is the only witness to distress, she tends to feel a moral responsibility to help.  However, when surrounded by others, a person is significantly less likely to feel she should intervene, hence the Kitty Genovese tragedy. 

For example, one 1969 study found that while 70% of people would help a woman in distress if they were the only witnesses, only 40% would help if other people were present.  Putting aside the fact that, apparently, 30% of us are not willing to help a person in need, the psychology of the bystander effect suggests there are two forces at play in these situations.

The first is what psychologists call the “diffusion of personal responsibility”.  This is when a person in a group sees something bad and may (incorrectly) assume that somebody else in the group will step up and intervene, thereby feeling less personally responsible to act.  Tragically, when everybody assumes that somebody else will solve the problem, nobody does. 

The second is called “social referencing”.  This is when individuals look to others in the group to determine what behavior is or is not appropriate.  For example, if everybody is ignoring a child crying alone on a busy sidewalk, a person who might otherwise rationally think the child needs help may override that impulse precisely because nobody else on the busy sidewalk is reacting to the crying child.

Unfortunately, these two forces can reinforce each other.  If everybody assumes other people will solve the problem of the crying child, and then sees everybody else ignoring the crying child, nobody ultimately helps the crying child.  This isn’t just theory; the Kitty Genovese tragedy shows these effects are very real.  Today, if you are in distress, psychologists recommend calling out to a specific person in the crowd and asking that person for help (i.e., “hey, you, in the red shirt, call 911 now!”, rather than a generic “help me!”).  

While we don’t deal with anything as dramatic as midnight attacks or lost children, we can attest to the fact that the bystander effect is alive and well in the world of business.  An HBR article elaborates

“Imagine Jane, a member of an engineering team at a company. The top management of the company is eager to release a product to the market before competitors mimic it. However, a bug in the product has been uncovered, and someone needs to bring up the issue. When Jane is the only member of the team who is aware of the issue, she would feel a personal responsibility to alert her managers of the problem. But, when her team members—John, Jack, and Julia—also know about the bug, Jane might feel that approaching leadership isn’t solely her responsibility. She becomes less likely to speak up, and for the very same reason, John, Jack, and Julia are also less likely to do so…. Voicing such issues is, after all, risky, as individuals can often be punished or put down for speaking up. Thus, when Jane, John, Jack and Julia all know about the same concern, each tends to wait for one of the others to take on the risks of speaking up and feels less personally guilt or duty-bound to bring up the issue him or herself. The bystander effect kicks in, and diffusion of responsibility prevents issues from percolating up to managers.”

As we manage a growing number of small businesses, it’s important to be aware of various psychological forces at play.  Clearly, the bystander effect can stifle communication and/or create a lack of accountability for outcomes, both of which are bad for business. It’s our responsibility to create systems and a culture that attract and reward those who are comfortable elevating problems or resolving issues directly.  Ultimately, we want to work with those who run toward, not away from, the fire. 

Have a great week,

Your Chenmark Team

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