Yes, cities are uncaring. And urban psychologists have been trying one public experiment after another to prove it. But research shows this inability to engage is not moral failure but in fact the “failure to react”, a Salon articles says.
Urbanites, accused of looking the other way or simply looking on even as a a murder is committed, are afflicted with what’s called the “bystander effect”. And it’s not the same as being cold.
Research cited in the article takes a more realistic look at the causes of what’s really making us all bystanders:
To much of everything: There’s so much competing for the urbanite’s attention all the time that he trains himself to zoom in on matters of immediate and direct consequence. That’s why he may pass you by while your pocket is being pinched.
Alone and unsure: Consider a bicycle being stolen right in front of many eyes, each checking out the other’s reaction to ascertain whether something is actually amiss or is it just a figment of the mind. “In short: If you see people acting like something is no big deal, you assume the same. If you’re in a place where people are apt to intervene, you probably will too. And if you’re not, you won’t.”
It’s a culture thing: Places where “social obligations take priority over individual achievement tend to be less economically productive.”
Pedestrians and their pace: The faster the city moves on its feet, the less it registers. Expect a Mumbaikar to pass you by in moment of need than, say, a Bangalorean; even if help is forwarded, say researchers, it’s “terse and non-committal”.
Image in the way: You want to help and yet not look obtrusive. Which way do you go? In cities, fast moving and individualistic, that answer gets only half resolved. That is classic “anti-social urbanism”, of which psychologist Stanley Milgram of the ‘Obedience to Authority‘ fame, wrote way back in 1970:
“Cities develop new norms of non-involvement,” he wrote. “These are so well-defined and so deeply a part of city life that they constitute the norms people are reluctant to violate. Men are actually embarrassed to give up a seat on the subway to an old woman; they mumble ‘I was getting off anyway,’ instead of making the gesture in a straightforward and gracious way.”
Read the complete Salon article here.