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Page last updated at 12:14 GMT, Wednesday, 31 May 2006 13:14 UK

Doing the decent thing

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

A student has died after being stabbed when he apparently intervened in an argument. Would you step in?

It's a dilemma that anybody could face. An argument breaks out, do you step in or look the other way?

Student Tom Grant is believed to have intervened in a row, and died from a single stab wound to the heart. Such incidents make others wonder if they would do the same.

But what Mr Grant did is unusual, according to academics who have studied the Bystander Effect. It is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when an emergency situation is presented to a group of people. The more people that are present, the less likely it is that anyone will help.

Mimic instinct

Reasons for this include people expecting someone else to take control, mimicking what others are doing in unfamiliar situations and fear of making a mistake.

So what made the student do what he did when most others wouldn't? It is a difficult question to answer as each situation and individual are so different, says Douglas Sharp, professor of criminal justice at the University of Central England, in Birmingham.

People nowadays have become more fearful of the consequences if they step in and don't feel they can rely on others to back them up
Julian Baggini

"In basic terms, people who intervene do so without going through a conscious thought process," says the former policeman, with 30 years experience in the force.

"If people think about the situation, they get scared of being caught in something they have no control over and generally don't step in. Fear plays a big part in their decision."

The way a person sees society, and their place in it, is also a major factor. Mr Grant was an intelligent young man who was planning a career in the army. Someone who wanted to join the armed forces would probably view themselves as able to cope in adversity, says psychologist Darren Cooper.

"Another person who viewed their own sense of self as not being so tough would probably have moved to another carriage rather than intervene."

Philosopher Julian Baggini agrees that when faced with such situations people do not engage in complicated moral calculations - those who help just act instinctively. But it is an instinct that people are losing, he says.


"People nowadays have become more fearful of the consequences if they step in and don't feel they can rely on others to back them up. The instinct still remains in older generations, to them it is just what a decent person would do. That is why they are often so shocked when people don't help in such situations."

From politicians to grandparents, this alleged shift in society's moral code is often criticised. The loss of what are perceived to be the higher standards of behaviour of years gone by are regularly mourned. But when it comes to helping someone, are people today more likely to turn their back and walk away than previous generations?

"People are more frightened about intervening in low level antisocial behaviour these days, where as years ago they would have," says Prof Sharp.

"But I don't think attitudes have changed when it comes to violent offending, people are just as likely - or not - to intervene as they would have years ago."

Tom Grant
Tom Grant wanted to join the military
Not all the changes in society's moral code are bad. While there has been a decrease in the "local solidarity" that makes people step in when something happens in front of them, there has been an increase in "universal solidarity", says Mr Baggini.

"We are more concerned about the plight of people in other countries who grow our coffee beans or make our clothes now. There have been good moral changes and bad ones. If, on balance, this makes for a better or worse world is not clear."

But faced with a violent situation, is there a certain way people should handle it?

"There are courses on how to defuse confrontation situations, which are probably useful in a customer-care environment. Otherwise you can't say which is the wrong or right way to intervene," says Professor Sharp.

"You can't say that if someone had done something differently there would have been a different outcome. In violent confrontations people are so volatile, they can do anything."

Just look at the bible and the parable of the good smaratain to see the people have been ignoring those in need for years.
John, London

Fighting should always be the last resort. We should rely instead on our tongues. However if it looks really serious then yes, step in. But perhaps the question should be instead, where are our local bobbies who should be out on the street to diffuse such situations? Look to the government for the answer to that one, I think.
Nikki, Weybridge

How easy it is for these academics to criticise from a distance. When in that situation you act by instinct and fear. Only once have I intervened when a man was hitting his partner in the high street, I pushed him away and subsequently hit me for touching "her man". Never again will I help.
Stephen, Cardiff

The police have for some time been recommending people don't intervene. No doubt the message is getting through. I reckon intervening increases risk to oneself for little benefit - but if everyone did, it would be less risky for is all.
Michael Grazebrook, London

A deep demise in a moral code is endemic in todays self gratifying society. The concept of community and neighbourhood is a non-entity, replaced by secular, celebrity obsessed lunacy!If you cannot even respect yourself, then how are you going to respect others? If you are seen to use the words 'please' 'thankyou' or the unthinkable 'sorry', then you are perceived, quite remarkably as being a soft touch. I believe the problem stems from the systematic breakdown of the family structure. The extended industrial family structure has been replaced by broken families, broken values and a general disregard for others. The notion of the Good Samaritan has been lost in this process. This is also partly due to the ridiculous laws we have in this country, which serve little in terms of deterrant and even punish those trying to help. Common sense has long since been removed from the legal system.
David Bonser, Huddersfield

Last June, while driving home from work, I noticed a small boy (aged around 8) with blood running down his face pushing his bicycle being escorted by two slightly older boys (aged around 12) pushing their bicycles. Of the other cars on the relatively busy street no one else stopped or slowed to see if the child was ok. I stopped checked on the boy and waited with them until one of the parents was located in a nearby Tesco. When I explained what I had done to friends and family, I was surprised at their reaction. The responses ranged saying this could have been a scam to rob me to I would not want someone interacting with my child in that way all the way to someone worrying that they would have been thought to have caused injury. The overall view was not to get involved. Obviously this is different from a violent confrontation, but I fear that instinct to help is being lost.
Lawrence Serewicz, Stockton, UK

I think it depends on what the situation calls for - certainly I was raised with the attitude to always help others, however as a 5ft female I would now have to seriously consider the consequences of taking such action. It's a shame as we shouldn't be fearful of helping others in need, but society has changed and respect for fellow humans appears to have all but gone. My deepest sympathies go to the family Tom Grant.
Tina, Bucks, UK

This is a difficult one, but I feel you should step in to help. All too often, people are only concerned about themselves and society has become very selfish. Although my recent circumstance was not to this extreme, I was in a stiuation where I fainted on a train (I am 21 weeks pregnant) and no one helped me. In fact people stood on me (I have the bruises to show!) and it was only when I cried out for help that someone eventually came, but others looked on as if I was causing them a problem. The general public should be more willing to help others and this may in turn, stop people trying to assault others.
Jain Talbot, Manchester

I agree, it depends on the situation. Fear would probably enforce me to leave a violent situation but I would likely phone the Police in the hope that they would quickly arrive to offer appropriate help. I would always help if I could, especially where children are concerned. I also think it is easier for a woman to offer assistance than it is for a man.
Lesley, Glasgow

Helping people in immediate danger is instinctual surely? I would always step in and have done in the past of course you are potentially endangering yourself but if a child is being hurt or a gang are hurting one person I find it hard to believe that people will do nothing - I think its referred to as Diffusion of Responsibility - at least make an emergency call on your mobiles !! ALways think it could be you or someone you love in trouble
Michele Newlands, Basingstoke, hampshire

I've often offered assistance when I've seen people come unstuck, and I've always thought I might try to intervene in a violent situation. In the light of recent events though I've decided I wouldn't try to break up a fight, argument etc. It only takes a second, and a single stab wound (whether intentional or not) for everything to be snatched from you. Why risk such a pointless death? This may seem selfish, but I have some very good reasons for staying alive.
Andrew, Cheshire

I personally would have no hesitation in stepping into a situation where someone was unable to defend themselves. To say that you fear for your own safety is an excuse to hide behind, the same people then spend the rest of the day sitting around tut tutting at the way the country is going down the pan. Look the other way and you've surrenderd the country to those that would cause fear. Men went overseas ready to give their lives, the least you can do is hold on to what they gave us.
David Abrahams, Herne Bay

I got knocked off my bike a few months ago, and landed on the pavement with my bike on top of me. About 10 or so people walked past me, hardly even looking at me, with one man literally stepping over me. In the end, it was an old woman who actually stopped, help me get up, checked me over to see if I was alright, and waited with me until I was ready to go on. As Lawrence from Stockton said, people no longer want to help others. The world needs more people like my 'rescuer' and Tom Grant.
Peter, Luton, UK

I have stepped in to try and break up situations before and would do so again. I simply cannot stand by and ignore any situation where force and intimidation are being used against a weaker party - history has shown that turning your back is exactly what has allowed oppressive and evil regimes to rise to power. Those who can should stand and be counted.
Jon, Leicester

30 years ago yes, always. But not now. Times have changed. People are much less tolerant and resort to violence much quicker.
Raphael, London, England

This is endemic of the ME society that we live in. No-one cares about, or probably even, knows their neighbours anymore. There's no community and very little respect for anyone. Why, because parental and teachers rights have been eroded to the point that you daren't discipline anyone for fear of being branded a tyrant. The little darlings MUST have their freedom to express themselves at ANY cost it seems. Well done do-gooders, hope you don't depend on anyone else to save you when you get mugged.
David, Chelmsford UK

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