Yesterday morning I woke up at an ungodly hour to drive my wife to the train station, as I have been doing since she went back to work after her surgery. We were running late because of a debacle with a power outage and an alarm clock. Because it is winter the sky had only the slightest hint of brightness to let the world know that it was thinking of waking up and becoming morning.
I was exhausted because I had only gone to sleep a few hours before. I was looking forward to dropping my wife off and then darting home and cuddling back into bed.
As we drove around the corner I saw something strange.
“Is that a stroller?” I asked.
“Yeah, I guess so,” said my wife. We were both sleepy, and she was tense because of the time crunch.
It was too dark to see if the stroller was empty or not. There was no one else around. But we didn’t have any time to waste, so I drove past and towards the train station. It is less than a mile away from our house, so it isn’t a long trip.
My wife got out of the car and we kissed and I wished her a good day. Then I turned around to drive home. And I thought about the stroller.
Was there a baby in there? Had there been a baby abandoned on the sidewalk a block away from our house? Should I stop and take a look, in case there was an abandoned baby and I needed to call the police? I didn’t see any baby, but then again it was dark. I didn’t hear any baby, but then again they don’t always make noise.
I didn’t want to. I was exhausted and parts of my brain weren’t on. I wanted to go back to sleep, not wait for the cops to show up. And what if there was someone waiting in the (nonexistent) bushes, ready to grab whoever came to investigate the trailer. Besides, there were plenty of cars driving around. Chances were someone would stop and find out if something was wrong, right?
That’s when I froze. That’s when I knew that I had to be the one to make sure there wasn’t a baby in there, and deal with the consequences if there was. Not because I am a good person. Not because of a need for heroism or a sense of civic responsibility. Those might drive someone to do it. But the only reason I did is that I recognized that I was in the grip of the bystander effect.
Many experiments have demonstrated that people are less likely to help a stranger when there are other people around, or in a well populated area where other people are likely to show up shortly. Everyone considers helping, but decides that they don’t need to because someone else will do it.
Statistically, you will receive help more quickly if your car breaks down on a lonely country road than a well-traveled city road. The city drivers will drive right on by, confident that help is one the way.
I know about the bystander effect. For that reason alone, I feel obligated to act when I am under its thrall.
So when I got back to the corner I pulled over and took a good long look inside the stroller. The car behind me honked. It made me tense, but I ignored it. Because that’s another component of the bystander effect. Social pressure actually makes us less likely to help, because we assume that if everyone else is ignoring something then there isn’t really a problem. The social cues of others have an enormous effect on what we consider normal.
The stroller was empty. I made sure I was certain of that before I drove on by. There was a pile of cars behind my by the time I pulled away. There was no baby in there.
I still have no idea why there was an empty stroller on the corner of the sidewalk. It was gone by the time I passed there again later in the day. Maybe I should have called the cops anyway. Something strange was definitely going on. But I really wanted to go back to sleep. And like I said, I’m not a hero.
I just read a lot of psychology books.