CAUSE OF DEATH: UNCERTAIN(TY)
All the weapons of influence discussed in this book work better under some conditions than under others. If we are to defend ourselves adequately against any such weapon, it is vital that we know its optimal operating conditions in order to recognize when we are most vulnerable to its influence. In the case of the principle of social proof, we have already had a hint of one time when it works best. Among the Chicago believers, it was a sense of shaken confidence that triggered their craving for converts. In general, when we are unsure of ourselves, when the situation is unclear or ambiguous, when uncertainty reigns, we are most likely to look to and accept the actions of others as correct.
In the process of examining the reactions of other people to resolve our uncertainty, however, we are likely to overlook a subtle but import- ant fact. Those people are probably examining the social evidence, too. Especially in an ambiguous situation, the tendency for everyone to be looking to see what everyone else is doing can lead to a fascinating
phenomenon called “pluralistic ignorance.” A thorough understanding of the pluralistic ignorance phenomenon helps immeasurably to explain a regular occurrence in our country that has been termed both a riddle and a national disgrace: the failure of entire groups of bystanders to aid victims in agonizing need of help.
The classic example of such bystander inaction and the one that has produced the most debate in journalistic, political, and scientific circles began as an ordinary homicide case in the borough of Queens in New York City. A woman in her late twenties, Catherine Genovese, was killed in a late-night attack on her home street as she returned from work. Murder is never an act to be passed off lightly, but in a city the size and tenor of New York, the Genovese incident warranted no more space than a fraction of a column in The New York Times. Catherine Genovese’s story would have died with her on that day in March 1964 if it hadn’t been for a mistake.
The metropolitan editor of the Times, A. M. Rosenthal, happened to be having lunch with the city police commissioner a week later. Rosenthal asked the commissioner about a different Queens-based homicide, and the commissioner, thinking he was being questioned about the Genovese case, revealed something staggering that had been uncovered by the police investigation. It was something that left everyone who heard it, the commissioner included, aghast and grasping for explanations. Catherine Genovese had not experienced a quick, muffled death. It had been a long, loud, tortured, _public _event. Her assailant had chased and attacked her in the street three times over a period of thirty-five minutes before his knife finally silenced her cries for help. Incredibly, thirty-eight of her neighbors watched the events of her death unfold from the safety of their apartment windows without so much as lifting a finger to call the police.
Rosenthal, a former Pulitzer Prize—winning reporter, knew a story when he heard one. On the day of his lunch with the commissioner, he assigned a reporter to investigate the “bystander angle” of the Genovese incident. Within a week, the _Times _published a long, page 1 article that was to create a swirl of controversy and speculation. The first few paragraphs of that report provide the tone and focus of the burgeoning story:
For more than half an hour thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.
Twice the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out, and stabbed her again. Not one persotelephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.
That was two weeks ago today. But Assistant Chief Inspector Frederick M. Lussen, in charge of the borough’s detectives and a veteran of twenty-five years of homicide investigations, is still shocked.
He can give a matter-of-fact recitation of many murders. But the Kew Gardens slaying baffles him—not because it is a murder, but because “good people” failed to call the police.
My short comment from what follows: Social proof: If there’s uncertainty and others are doing nothing, people will follow the group mentality - and do nothing. If you need help, address people and ask for help (like “you in a blue scarf, help me, call an ambulance please”).