The video shows an older man on a New York City subway platform, struggling against a gush of filthy water that has forced him to the ground. Finally, he makes it to his knees and looks directly at the camera, as if in accusation: Why didn’t you help me?
After the clip went viral, people on Twitter wondered the same thing. “Drop the phone and help that man?” one person asked. “We are so much better at documenting the things we might have helped out with instead,” another said. It’s a familiar indictment of the social media age: We’d all rather record a clip for likes than actually do some good in the world. But the knee-jerk reactions to this clip — and plenty like it — may actually have things wrong. (Not for nothing, the clip itself also ends with someone walking toward the man; it’s possible he was ultimately helped.) Research shows the presence of cameras makes people more likely to intervene when they see someone in danger — not less.
It’s easy to see where the negative assumptions about uncaring “bystanders” comes from. Most people probably think of Kitty Genovese, a young New Yorker who, in 1964, was stalked, stabbed, and murdered outside her Queens apartment building while (supposedly) 38 people watched. The myth around the Genovese case is that none of these witnesses helped, and it’s from this story that the concept of the bystander effect — which suggests people are less likely to help someone if they’re around other people — was launched into the collective consciousness.
But that isn’t what actually happened. While initial reports said Genovese was attacked three times before her eventual death, the real number of attacks was two. And there weren’t 38 witnesses who stood idly by. In reality, there were probably more like 12 people who heard suspicious noises, according to a New York Times obituary of the murderer. Nor did they all stand by and…