Exploring The Bystander Effect in China

By Zach Cook, May 4, 2016

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Yet another case of public brutality went viral last week. This time, a man savagely beat his wife on the streets of Chengdu, accusing her of infidelity. What made it all the more revolting was that it occurred in the presence of their crying little girl. (View the video of the Chengdu incident here. Viewer discretion is advised.)

One of the most common criticisms of China is of its ‘bystander effect,’ where witnesses to these atrocities are unwilling to intervene and are accustomed to recording them instead. 

Last year in the same city, another viral video showed a man – in an extreme case of road rage – repeatedly stomping a woman’s head into a busy highway where no one stopped to help.

In the more recent case, to Chengdu’s credit, some passersby did try to stop the barrage, albeit unsuccessfully. 

Though this is certainly a problem that many of us have likely witnessed firsthand in China, it’s worth putting things into perspective. 

This sort of social apathy is not unique to China. Last month in the US, a viral video showed a group of women viciously beating their former school-bully victim while she was sunbathing on a South Carolina beach, 30 people stood by and did nothing.    

In 2008, a California man stomped his two-year-old son to death as at least six, including three men, stood by and watched. The nation was shocked (just as China is when its bystander stories go viral), but the experts were not. Police and psychologists working on the case agreed that bystanders are justifiably scared and confused in these situations, according to SFGate of the San Francisco Chronicle

This is because these experts are familiar with the psychology behind the bystander effect. The concept was made popular by social psychologists in 1964 after the murder of Kitty Genovese in New York. According to Psychology Today, they found that the bystander effect was attributed to the diffusion of responsibility—meaning the more witnesses, the less likely people are to intervene.

This brings us back to China. There are a lot of people in China. The diffusion of responsibility, as described by Latané and Darley, is naturally more common here simply because it's a lot more crowded. Moreover, since there are so many people around, the likelihood that someone will record it is greater. 

However, part of it does have to do with Chinese culture and the belief, which so many Chinese still ascribe to, that matters of this nature are strictly the business of the couple and the couple alone. 

Until recently, the law even upheld this view. Things improved for Chinese women last year when parliament passed the country's first domestic violence law, which prohibits any form of domestic violence. Of course, there will always be scumbags like the one in Chengdu who beat their wives, but at least now it’s a criminal offense. 

Naturally, it will take some time for the culture to catch up with the law. Until then, it’s important to be aware of the bystander effect for two reasons: first, to help foreigners check their righteous indignation when deriding the Chinese for their unwillingness to help (since this phenomenon occurs everywhere); and second, so we can ensure that it doesn’t happen to us. The initial shock may be difficult to overcome, but it doesn’t usually require combat training to stop an attack. 

READ MORE: Will China's Anti-Domestic Violence Law Evoke Change?

[Image via Youtube]

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