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Psychology and the Brock Turner episode–bystander intervention

I am writing this in the week after Emily Doe’s remarkable letter to her assailant, Brock Turner, was published.  If you are not one of the millions who have read it, here is a link.  I generally do not do trigger warnings, but in this case, there is graphic description of sexual violence:


Mr. Turner was given a 6-month sentence, very light given the offenses.

What good might come of this horror? There is much that psychology could say about this all.  Why did the press not use his mug shot?  Why did the press describe his swimming accomplishments, when for most rapists they do not include the equivalent? Why did the judge make his decision? Why do we live in a world of entitlement, in which others’ bodies are objects to use rather than of gratitude, in which we might value instead reception of others’ freely given gifts?

Will this just be forgotten? This piece is my offering that it not be.

I want to focus on bystander intervention, both because it might save your life, or that of someone you might know, and because it is one of the greatest stories of social psychology research.

Mr. Turner was convicted in large part because two young men were bicycling past and saw him, stopped him, and held him till the police arrived.  The Washington Post told this aspect of the story well, and expands on bystander intervention.  Here is a link to their piece: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/06/09/you-dont-need-the-muscle-of-two-swedish-men-to-stop-a-rape/

Someday you might need someone to assist you in an emergency. Someday you might be in the vicinity of someone who needs such assistance.  What can we do to make it more likely that those who can help will meet the needs of those in trouble?

Well, consider what had to happen in this case.

The bicyclists needed to notice. In the dark they could have ridden past and never known that anything was happening.  If you are in trouble you might need to draw attention.  If you are inclined to help…pay attention.

Once the bicyclists noticed something was happening they had to interpret this as a situation that called for help.  It would have been easy for them to just think that this was two people out having sex consensually and ridden on.  They could have imagined it was not a situation in which people get involved.  There are so many forces that lead us not to consider helping others. Will they be offended?  Did we misunderstand what was happening?  How embarrassed will we be if we step in where we were not supposed to?  No one else is doing anything, so it must not be a problem.  And all of these lead to inertia, inaction, victims suffering.  Be alert to your own subtle interpretations of the world that lead you not think that helping is called for.  Truth be told there is more that needs to be done than you or I could in a lifetime.

Bear with me as I describe a case from my own life. A few years ago I was in my neighborhood getting carryout and a young woman (remarkably one of my former students from social psychology) happened to be there and she pointed out a young couple down the (busy!) street having an argument.  How were we to interpret this?  People argue.  There was no physical violence.  Is this just a couple that needed to sort it out?  So we watched.  Then he picked her (not my former student) up and put her over his shoulder and carried her up the street, in our direction.  Those between us and them did nothing.  Did that mean it wasn’t a problem?  The woman wasn’t waving her arms or screaming. Were these two young people acting badly but in a nonproblematic way?  I’ve taught this stuff for a long time and I was confused.  I think we underestimate how confusing the world is, how hard to come to a proper understanding.  How are we to know who needs help?  And then as they were drawing nearer (and I was trying to figure out what to do) she said, while being carried, that she couldn’t believe that no one was doing anything.   To my shame it took that much to disambiguate the situation for me.  So I told him to put her down or I’d call the police.  He did and started to tell a cockamamie story as she ran off, so I called the police, trailed him as he ran off, and last saw him as the police were taking him away.

You will be confused about whether to help.  Ask.  If no help was needed you might be embarrassed.  If help was needed something awful might be averted.  Your embarrassment might be very salient to you.  Make salient those like Emily Doe.  Ask. If you need help and no one is helping, ask for help.  Your needs might be obvious to you. Perhaps they ought to be obvious to those around you.

They won’t be.


Even after realizing that there was a problem the bicyclists needed to take responsibility.  There are many people who could help those in need. Why should they? Why should you?  Why not someone else whose burdens are easier, who have more time, who are stronger, who know more, who are…someone other than you?

Most likely everyone around you is thinking that too.  There is a diffusion of responsibility.  If I’m the only one to see I know I am the only one to help. If many can see, then why me?

Be alert to this.  I was blessed with parents who taught me if I weren’t to help then who would?  Perhaps that helped in the case I just described.  I know that my teaching helped.  I recognized the diffusion and that recognition made it much more likely I would act.

Do you have a responsibility to those around you, your family, your friends, strangers?  If you do not, will they toward you?  Are we to live in a world where every tub is to its own bottom?  If so, to what end?

Watch yourself today, tomorrow, and see if that thought “oh, someone else can help” crosses your mind.  Is it a thought you wish to be your friend?

If you need help, break the diffusion. Point to someone if possible and tell that one person to take responsibility. There is promising evidence this will help.

There is more to this….figuring out how to help and so on. But noticing, interpreting, and taking responsibility are so critical.

And they are one of the great discoveries of social psychology.  John Darley and Bibb Latane (full disclosure, Bibb is a friend, though I’ve not seen him in a while) did the initial research on this in response to the famous Kitty Genovese case.  Their discoveries are the origin of what is being taught on campuses and elsewhere to spur bystander intervention.   It makes me proud of my field.

Take some time to reflect on Emily’s story.  Is there a lesson you might learn?  If each of us were to help one more person in need than we otherwise might have, how much better of a world might we make?




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