What the Film “Her” Says About Bystander Apathy: Probably Not What You Think

Eye on Flat Panel Monitor

In the film Her, a lonely soon-to-be-divorced man falls in love with his artificially intelligent operating system. Film critics almost uniformly praised the film, while everyday reviews have been extraordinarily mixed (see Amazon and Netflix).

But across all these reviews, a commonly accepted theme in the film was that our advances in technology are desocializing us. Overuse of technology or being overly connected to it can isolate people from each other. People are becoming more distant from each other.

And yet, near the end of the movie, after the main character tripped and fell in public, every nearby bystander tried to help him right away. Where was the typical bystander apathy?

Bystander apathy or the bystander effect is the term used by social psychologists to describe the failure of people in a crowd to help a victim. The more bystanders there are, the less likely they will help (Latané & Nida, 1981). Think Kitty Genovese, the infamous case in New York in which a woman was attacked and killed while dozens of nearby witnesses did nothing to help.

Such bystander stories of human disconnection, of people apparently not caring about each other, have been around well before high-tech computers. And yet in this film, in which the technology reached sci-fi levels of desocializing power, there was no bystander apathy.

Hmm. Did the writer and director, Spike Jonze, realize what he was doing here? Was it an oversight? This bystander scene seemed to contradict the theme of the film.

But in fact, as a social psychologist, I can say that the scene made perfect sense. One of the reasons for the bystander effect is ironically our social connectedness or awareness of nearby others. There are social influences to not help a victim (Latané & Nida, 1981):

embarrassed1. The typical bystander doesn’t want to feel embarrassed or on display in front of others.

2. The typical bystander experiences diffusion of responsibility, in which onlookers ask themselves, “Why do I have to be the one to help when there are so many others here?”

3. The typical bystander sees other bystanders not helping and falsely perceives their inaction as reflecting no concern (an example of the fundamental attribution error or FAE). And if we think others have no concern, then we start to think there’s no reason to be concerned or to help. These biased perceptions fall under a more general concept called pluralistic ignorance (Prentice & Miller, 1993).

So if the bystander effect and these biased perceptions are caused by social connectedness, then reducing feelings of social connectedness should reduce such bias and the bystander effect. Ironically, without feelings of social connectedness, we can clearly see that someone has fallen and needs help. Period. There would be no social influences to not help the victim.

hero

I once attended a talk by social psychologist Phillip Zimbardo on heroism. Zimbardo seemed to agree that heroes have courage and selflessness, but he added one more thing. He suggested that heroes are somehow not influenced by the everyday social forces that influence us to not do the right thing. Besides bystander intervention, Zimbardo cited cases of whistle blowing, in which strong social norms or fears of social punishment dictated not to tattle, and yet an individual (the whistle blower) resisted these norms and did the right thing.

So one conclusion from this discussion, and from that brief scene in Her, is that we can reduce our biased bystander perceptions by disconnecting from other people. We can increase our humanity by ignoring some social norms. Some social norms lead to immoral action or inaction. We can reduce our own bystander apathy by existing by ourselves in the moment – then the right thing to do will be clear.

Sports Fan in Stadium

Talking to your computer through an ear piece 24-7, as in Her, might not be the best way to accomplish this disconnection-based morality. But trying to think for ourselves more often or to care less about social norms would be a step in the right direction.

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Disclaimers:

1. There was a mistake in Latané & Nida’s (1981) well-known meta-analysis. After correcting this mistake and reanalyzing the data, Stalder (2008) reported that more often than previously known, victims are more likely to receive help the more bystanders there are. This safety in numbers is also evident when people ask for help from others over email or through other forms of electronic communication (Stalder, 2011). Also, according to Manning, Levine, & Collins (2007), some bystanders did actually try to help Kitty Genovese that night, despite the popular narrative of no one trying. There is still sufficient evidence for the typical bystander effect – it’s just not as strong as we thought.

2. Of course whistle blowing is not just about social heroics. Some employees, for example, with children or other family responsibilities might not be able to risk the consequences of losing their job or being physically threatened, even if these employees are willing to endure the social consequences of whistle blowing. And of course not all cases of whistle blowing are viewed as equally moral.

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References:

Latané, B., & Nida, S. (1981). Ten years of research on group size and helping. Psychological Bulletin, 89, 308–324.

Manning, R., Levine, M., & Collins, A. (2007). The Kitty Genovese murder and the social psychology of helping: The parable of the 38 witnesses. American Psychologist, 62, 555–562.

Prentice, D. A., & Miller, D. T. (1993). Pluralistic ignorance and alcohol use on campus: Some consequences of misperceiving the social norm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 243-256.

Stalder, D. R. (2008). Revisiting the issue of safety in numbers: The likelihood of receiving help from a group. Social Influence, 3, 24-33.

Stalder, D. R. (2011, May). Updating the bystander-effect literature: The return of safety in numbers. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Midwestern Psychological Association, Chicago.

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