THE BLOG
11/20/2015 05:17 pm ET | Updated Nov 20, 2016

Leaders and Bystanders

Presidential candidate Ben Carson was widely ridiculed for saying that when a gunman sets out to shoot a bunch of unarmed people, someone should rush the gunman. This idea was ridiculed because it seemed to put the burden on the victims of mass shootings. But, whether or not Carson knew it, he was a discussing a well-known phenomenon called "the bystander effect." And, given what we know about the bystander effect, he may have a point even it if it was inopportunely raised.

The bystander effect was widely discussed in connection with a 1964 incident involving a young woman named Kitty Genovese. Ms. Genovese was walking from her car to the entrance to her apartment complex about 100 feet away. She was attacked by a robber and stabbed as she ran from him. She crawled to the entrance of her building screaming for help, but no one helped her even though several residents admitted to seeing her or hearing her screams. The robber returned, robbed her of $49, raped her, and stabbed her a second time clearly within sight and hearing of occupants of the building. She died.

While the occupants of the building were at least somewhat aware of her plight, none intervened. Each tenant had a good reason for not intervening. "I am one of the older people here and I shouldn't be the one to run the risk." "I am a young able male and I am always expected to risk my life when there is trouble." "I am female and will just end up being robbed and raped myself." "If she just gives the robber her money no one, including me, will get hurt." Each of these excuses was enough to keep anyone from intervening. This is called bystander effect to signify that it is a case when a tragedy occurs because bystanders to the event fail to intervene.

While the case of Ms. Genovese was a national sensation, it is not unusual. Every time we drive by somebody having car trouble, we engage in the same reasoning. "Let someone else who has more time help out." "I am old and someone younger should intervene." "The whole thing may be staged just to rob whoever stops to help." And so it goes until the police arrive or until someone takes the risk of helping out upon themselves. We see the same thing in current debates about climate change. Some reason that it is wrong for the United States to take on the burden of reducing its carbon emissions when competing nations will just take advantage of us while continuing to pollute.

Mass shootings often evidence the bystander effect. When a shooter appears, everyone seeks shelter. But if one of or several of the people attacked the shooter, there is a good chance that the cowardly shooter would be overwhelmed. If someone intervenes, fewer die overall but the intervener may pay a price. You can see how this works from the recent incident in which a shooter on a French train was attacked by American passengers. The interveners took on great risk and prevented what might have been mass murder. If the interveners had not acted, they and many other passengers would probably have died.

What we learn from the bystander effect is that if you are going to be ethical, you sometimes have to rise above cost-benefit analysis. For each individual bystander, the cost benefit approach says not to intervene. The decision to intervene is essentially ethical because it requires that principle take priority over personal interest.

Confronting a shooter is not an individually rational choice. And yet if individuals made this choice, there is a good chance the shooter will be stopped before causing the greatest harm. We can see the value of overcoming the bystander effect in business as well. If someone chooses to be the one to raise an issue over the ignition switch or the emissions test, they may be viewed as a trouble-maker. But every business needs individuals who rise above the cost benefit calculation in the interests of preventing unethical actions. Another word for these individuals is leaders and leadership is well defined as refusing to be a bystander.