The Bystander Effect: Egoism Versus Altruism

On September 16, 2019, a 16-year-old high school student, Khaseen Morris, was stabbed in the chest and bleed to death during an after-school fight with several other students in the parking lot of a shopping centre in New York. 50 to 70 students were at present, but as it was reported, no one gave Khaseen a helping hand. Instead, many in the group continued taking videos for social media as he lay bleeding. Similar incidents which were recorded have happened several times from 1960s to now, starting from Kitty Genovese murder which prompted inquiries into what became known as the bystander effect (Darley & Latane, 1968). Hearing these horrible incidents, we couldn’t help thinking are most people egoists and doesn’t care if others need help?

It is true that many people can be defined as egoists. The moral standard of egoists is that they act on the benefits of themselves and their benefits always come first than others. Egoists may still give others a helping hand but unlike those who are non-egoists who help others out of empathy or humanitarian norms or values, they have motives behind their help. Reciprocal benefits are normally the case. Also, egoists may give a helping hand in order to impress others or to avoid blame for not helping and improve reputation. This can be related to the underground experiment (piliavin, 1981). In that research, experiments were carried out on the subway where two actors (one holding a cane pretending to be sick and another holding alcohol bottles pretending to be drunk) acted in two carriages as if they need help and see if others help them. In terms of the victim, participants were more likely to help victim with cane than the drunk victim (the cane victim received help in 62/65 trials; the drunk victim received help in 19/38 trials). According to the theory which is concluded from the result, when deciding help or not, a person weighs up both the cost and benefit of helping. The reason why people prefer helping people with cane than drunk man in this study is that helping people who were drunk can lead to many underlying question comparing to people with crane. For example, drunk people can’t control themselves and they might beat the people who help them; They may also vomit and make a mass to the helper’s clothes. As a result, helping a drunk man is much more risky than helping a man with crane. If it seems beneficial to help, then the person is more likely to help. If the risk of helping is high, he may just decide not to help and do nothing. The cost and benefit theory are considered in those participants’s helping behaviour, and this theory have good research support. Many famous experiments owed that people would consider the cost and benefit when they have decision making. This can strengthen the theory that the reliability would be high which support the statement that most people are egoist.

Standing on the shoulder of previous researches (e.g. Darley & Latane, 1968; Latane & Nida, 1981), Piliavin minimized the interference of the number of people in the carriage to the results by selecting same subway stands(from one to another)at approximately same time of the day, so the numbers of people in the carriages won’t vary a lot. The reason why Piliavin had to control that variable is that according to the previous research, the amount of the present bystanders of the incidents had an effect on the percentage of people who help and how long it took for them to react. In Darley& Latane’s research, participants were divided into groups of 2, 3 and 6, and were not told the original purpose of the research. Participants then were made to believe one of the participants was having a seizure and the researchers had no idea about the situation. In this research, people’s helping behaviour was measured by recording whether the participants helped (the percentage of people who help in their own group) and if they help, how long did it take for a helping deed to occur. The result of the study suggests that, the bigger the size of the participants, the less people who would offer to help and the longer it would take to help. This phenomenon is described as diffusion of responsibility. Responsibility will equally be allocated to the people who are at presence of the incidents, and thus with more people, individuals are less likely to help in order to minimize the cost of helping. This gives good explanation why most people are some sort of egoists.

While there exist many egoistic behaviors in the nowadays world, there are also a lot of altruistic acts. Altruists are those who volunteer to do things that are beneficial to others and have no expectation of their own benefits. The motives behind these acts can be empathy, meaning that sharing the feelings of others may lead to altruistic acts. Also, humanitarian norms and values can be the cause of altruistic acts. One good example of altruism is Dominik Brunner, who died from protecting 4 children from being bullied by 2 teenagers on a train. When seeing 2 teenagers robbing and mugging 4 school children, Dominik didn't hesitate to step forward to help the children and was then beaten and killed by the teenagers. Similar incidents can be found anywhere in the newspaper or media, but if we consider the motivations of those who help, although they are egoistic acts, there still can be some purpose behind these. Is pure altruism which means others benefits come first and no wanting for return exists? Yes, it does. One example is called “mother’s love”. Mother always prioritizes the benefits of their children and wants no return.

In my point of view, the line between altruism and egoism is vague and although altruism stands for acting according to others benefits and has no expectation for self-benefits, many altruistic acts can be defined as egoistic if we look at them from another angle. In order to further investigate the motives behind altruism, reciprocal altruism, competitive altruism were introduced. reciprocal altruism, as introduced by Trivers, means the purpose of people doing altruistic acts is wanting for others who they help selflessly will do the same altruistic acts to them when situation is reversed. Competitive altruism is based on cooperation between individuals. People do it for the same in return, meaning that they want what they did to others happen to them in the future. If there is no compensation, there’ll be no competitive altruism. When we’re looking at the motives behind one’s acts, it’s much easier to clarify an altruistic act as egoistic acts than the opposite. The majority of people, according to the cost & benefit theory mentioned above, act before considering the cost and benefits. People who are pure egoists or pure altruists are only of a small amount. As a result, when we are judging the majority, there’s nothing wrong to say that most people are egoists. However, do the majorities really don’t care if others need help? In Darley & Latane’s experiment, participants often showed signs of nervousness (trembling hands and sweating palms) and asked the researchers after they told them the incidents, “Is he being taken care of?” “He’s alright, isn’t he?” (Darley & Latane, 1968). This indicates that they do care about the one they helped. While pure egoists, seeing from the definition above, who prioritize their own benefits, have no intention to care about others. Fisher’s study also prove this by suggesting that in dangerous situation, people are more willing to help others in need comparing to a normal situation. If the majority doesn’t care if others need help, the performance of helping behaviour under two situations may remain the same.

To conclude, most people act before evaluating the cost and benefits and can be defined as egoists, while only a small amount of people are pure egoists who do not care if others need help.


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16 August 2021
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