Ervin Staub

Am I My Brother’s Keeper? … The Pivotal Role of Bystanders

VTR Date: November 5, 1993

Dr. Ervin Staub considers why someone might come to another's aid.


GUEST: Ervin Staub
VTR: 11/5/1993

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND and our program today is based upon still another provocative New York Times article by Daniel Goldman, this one back in June of 1993. Titled “Studying the Pivotal Role of Bystanders, it told of a quite fascinating work of a distinguished activist/research psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, work that focuses on what bystanders, you and I in that role perhaps, might be taught to do to lead others away from doing social harm and evil, or at least from seeming to condone it by standing by without coming to victims’ aid. A refugee himself from the evil incarnate itself that was Nazism, Ervin Staub ultimately came to the United States as one of the many beneficiaries of bystanders like the Swede Raoul Wallenberg and the German Oskar Schindler who exercised strong leadership in coming to the aid of Hitler’s victims. Beginning studies in psychology at the University of Minnesota and earning his doctorate at Stanford University, Dr. Staub says that he set out to identify the factors that made people more likely to come to someone’s aid. His studies have shown him what he calls “the power of bystanders to define the meaning in events in a way that leads people to take responsibility”. “Besides”, he notes, “actions by bystanders, even simply protesting what’s being done empowers the victims, while passivity adds to their suffering. People don’t realize the power they have as bystanders to make a difference”.

Well, my question to Dr. Staub is whether one can effectively teach to bystanders to want to make that difference. Dr. Staub?

STAUB: That’s a very important question and you summarize some very major issues and points beautifully.

HEFFNER: Using your words, Sir.

STAUB: Well, now…maybe. I do think that we can teach people to be effective bystanders, but in order for that to happen, we have to teach them to care about others’ welfare. Because without caring about others’ welfare, why would people extend effort, put themselves sometimes into danger, even, in order to help other people in need or in distress? So, in a way, it has to start early in childhood. Children have to receive love and affection themselves, and must receive guidance so that they come to care about others’ welfare in order for them to have the potential to interfere. Now that in itself is not enough. Because children can learn to care about other people’s welfare but only apply this caring to their own group, or what they define as “us”, whichever way they define “us”, whether it’s part of an ethnic or religious group, or a nation, and not apply this to people who are defined as “them”. They may even learn, at the same time, to care about “us” and to devalue “them”. So they also have to learn caring about people beyond their own group. And if that happens, we have the rudiments of acting bystandership. Now some other things also have to happen along the way. But that depends on the circumstances, the kind of bystandership we talk about, because there is a bystandership when you see someone collapse on the street, or the kind of bystandership you have when you kind of have an idea that a neighbor might mistreat a child or a bystandership when we know that another group of people suffers because they are abused or mistreated by their own government. So there are different things that come into place on these different occasions.

HEFFNER: Dr. Staub, as a psychologist, do you feel that one needs to have self-interest, that there has to be an element of self-interest before one can motivate the concern for others? I, I raise that question because we talked about the Holocaust and your own removal from it and I was thinking that Franklin Roosevelt’s “Quarantine the Aggressor” speech in which he asked the American people – and he got a very negative answer, by the way – whether they wouldn’t as neighbors, when their neighbor’s house was on fire, want to take their own garden hose and put out that fire so that it wouldn’t spread to their own homes. Do you need that element?

STAUB: Well, in some sense, there is enlightened self-interest in us helping others, because by doing that we create a world in which other people are more likely to help us. And we are interconnected within a community. We are interconnected in this world now. And I think that our passivity, for example, in Bosnia has long-term consequences to ourselves. But I think that in a particular situation in a particular time, self-interest is not necessary, except in this sense: People who develop caring about others and who are likely to take action when help is needed are likely to be pretty strong individuals who care about themselves also. So it’s not like they negate themselves, it is more like caring about other people and helping others in need is very much a part of who they are. And therefore, when they act on others’ behalf, they express themselves in a very important way.

HEFFNER: So that if the answer to the question “Am I My Brother’s Keeper” is yes, that “yes” is given by someone who feels personal strength.

STAUB: That’s right. I am my brother’s keeper and I am also my own keeper. Being my brother’s keeper for many people does not mean that you only look out for other people. It means that you can balance your own concerns and interests and at certain times you realize that the needs of others are so great that they should dominate over your own interests. And then there are still other people that for whom the two are intertwined. People who live lives of moral commitment, in which they spend their life basically doing some sort of activities that help poor people in need, or work for social change, whether it’s the civil rights movement, or some other form of social change, and in that case the two are very strongly intertwined.

HEFFNER: In the, in the, usually…the old argument about nature/nurture, what is your own conclusion about what is needed genetically, forget the environment for a moment, as if we could, for the development of those who would extend themselves to others, of those who would say “Yes, I am my brother’s keeper”?

STAUB: Well, I think that genetically, the way it works, in my opinion, is that we have the potential to be caring, and we have the potential to be aggressive and violent. And our genes don’t determine the direction because they don’t give the direction the potential. And that potential does evolve as a function of our experience. And that experience has to evolve as I said that experience of love and affection of caretaking, but also of guidance. For example, I have done a number of studies which show that young children, when they are allowed to participate in activities that help others, for example, to make toys for poor hospitalized children, or to teach a younger child, or some other related activities, they later become helpful, more helpful. So they learn from their own activities in a supporting environment to care more about other people and also to see themselves as helpful individuals who are willing to act on others’ behalf. But this is guidance by other people. This is nurture. Now there are some other elements of nature which may make action of certain kinds easier. There are temperamental differences among children. And some children are more action oriented. And for such children it may be a little easier to learn, in the face sometimes, of opposition from others, or in the face of passivity of others, to take action. Usually people tend to be inhibited when they look around themselves and see other people passive, by not responding to someone’s need on the street, or not responding to someone in another country. Other people don’t do things, our nation doesn’t take any action, there is no need for action, and other people just tend to remain passive. There are some people who are more inclined, and might find it a little bit easier to take initiative just on the basis of some temperamental characteristics and as they evolve in the course of their lifetime.

HEFFNER: Of course, I put my emphasis on the first few moments of our program on the question of how do you develop human beings who are concerned enough to WANT to be helpful as bystanders. A fascinating thing, of course, about your studies is the degree to which you indicate what the bystander can do in being effective. That the leadership emphasized by the bystander is enormously important.

STAUB: Very important. The potential power of bystanders, I think, is tremendous. I have done research, for example, in which two people sit together in a room and one is my confederate, so called, works with me, works on a task, and there is a crash and sounds of distress from the other room. And the person who is my confederate says one of several different things. And depending on what this other person says, this person is much more likely or much less likely to take action and be helpful. If this person kind of minimizes the sounds of distress, the other person is less likely to take action. If this person expresses clear concern, even if this person does not take action, having expressed clear concern, the other person is much more likely to act. So in that kind of a situation, we can recruit other people to join with us in a situation to help us reduce our own fear, and to help initiate action by them. But it’s not only in this individual realm that I think the part of bystanders is very needed. There are many life examples that show us. There was, for example, this Huguenot Village in France called Le Chambon, in which the people in the village hid many refugees, many of them children, many of them Jewish refugees whose lives were in danger, to be taken away, and they were hiding these people. And that example influenced a whole variety of people. For example, it influenced some members of the Vichy police so that they would get anonymous phone calls and notice that a raid was coming to the village so that they could hide these people in the forest. A German major persuaded a German colonel, having been impressed by the village doctrine, was executed for his actions. Having been impressed with their commitment to helping he joined them in a sense and persuaded this colonel not to move against the village. If you look at the very usual example of South Africa, it’s unusual in that it almost never happens that the community of nations joins together and says to a particular country that badly treats some of its citizens “No, this mustn’t be”. And send this message by speaking out, send this message by relatively…actions like not allowing South African athletes to compete, and finally the boycotts and the sanctions. And the effect of it was amazing. But normally we don’t do this. Normally nations are passive, or very frequently, in various ways support the perpetrators. And that, of course, is a real problem.

HEFFNER: Well, mostly, too, the citizens are passive. The “I’m alright, Jack and the devil take the hindmost” philosophy doesn’t…isn’t that after all part of our marketplace society? Isn’t that…aren’t you spitting against the wind? Aren’t you in your efforts trying to foster the development of a psychology that runs counter to our national psychology?

STAUB: Interesting question. I think that our national psychology actually is quite varied. We have very strong values that propagate materialism, and in a sense, achieving for one’s own self. But we also have very strong values, I think, in this country, of caring and concern about others. And I must say that I have found this in studying people, and I also have found this personally when I came to this country, the way people responded to me. Now it’s true that depending on what values individuals hold will make a difference. Some years back Psychology Today asked me to draw up a questionnaire for them on values and helping. And in that very long questionnaire, we also asked what kind of helping people engaged in. And seven thousand people returned the questionnaire. Unfortunately, Psychology Today stopped publishing that very month that the article was to be published on this, but our findings show that people who are most…whose values focus mostly on material success and success in the world for themselves were least helpful in the many different ways we asked about. And people who were more, what I call pro-socially oriented, they had a positive evaluation of human beings and a feeling of personal responsibility for others’ welfare, and were much more helpful. But I think that we do have quite varied beliefs and views in this country and there is a lot of caring, really, and a lot of…caring as well. And very frequently, if people knew avenues in which they could take action that would be helpful, I think people would give even more help.

HEFFNER: Is there any indication to you that on a national level…well, it was provided for if I may refer again to Franklin Roosevelt when he told the nation that we had nothing to fear but fear itself, and helped it get over its fears. When action was taken, as you suggest, a change in attitude took place. Frequently at this table I talk about pessimism and optimism because I am such a perpetual perennial pessimist. Your opinion on this is much more important. You’re a student of the human mind. How do you feel about not the scientific potential for leadership, and what you’re talking about is leadership here…what’s your sense of what’s likely to happen even as you describe the multiple inputs, the various sets of values in our country…what do…if you had to make your bets, where are we going to come out in this question of “Am I my brother’s keeper”?

STAUB: It’s a very basic question. And I think we might devine this into when, or how are we going to come out with the question “Am I my brother’s keeper” in terms of the people who are part of this country and also in terms of people in the rest of the world. When we look at people who are part of this country there are many positive developments. There have been many positive developments and then there are throw-backs and real difficulties. In terms of positive developments I mean that we have moved towards a more genuinely pluralistic society, in that groups who, once upon a time, had no voice in the public realm, for example Black people, African-Americans, who had no voice in the public realm for a very long time now have some voice in the public realm. There are laws and rules and procedures and norms that are getting established in relationship to them. So on one level, we are moving towards establishing a system of pluralism. On the other hand, there are terrible things happening.

HEFFNER: Excuse me then you must mean within mutual aid, too, within our country.

STAUB: Yes, there is also mutual aid. That means concern about the other and an appreciation of the facts. For example, if you think of things that are quite controversial for some people, but I think are very valuable and important, like Affirmative Action. Affirmative Action, in my…I never heard it put this way…what it was in a sense was a recognition of the fact that a group of people who have not been allowed to educate themselves, who have been severely punished for education of any kind in the period of slavery…for a long time, to improve the education you do need some special opportunities in order to be able to take care of themselves and to come up to a point in their various capacities and potentials, that they can participate fully in society. Now, unfortunately, while we have moved in certain ways in that direction, there are other ways that there are real tragic things happening. And in our roles as brother’s keepers we have to attend to that. We have to what’s happening in terms of youth violence, in terms of violence in the inner cities, in terms of young people killing all kinds of people and each other, and especially Black youth killing each other. And so, there is the question of opportunity and hope and we have to work in a variety of ways to provide that opportunity and hope and create a genuinely pluralistic and mutually supportive society. But what I’m saying is that there are elements in this society to care and to move in that direction. And somehow this tremendous problem evolved, and now we have to attend to that too.

HEFFNER: I gather you’re saying, though, that we are, we are making steps forward domestically in that area, but I gather before I interrupted you, you were about to suggest that perhaps in our relationship to the outside world, as bystanders we are not playing the same role that you would like us to, or that perhaps we once did.

STAUB: Well, I don’t think I would say play a role that I would like us to. Frankly, our history is not that great. But that doesn’t mean that it is worse than other countries’ history. Maybe it’s better in some ways. But if you look at certain things, for example during the Hitler era in the 1930s, when Hitler killed off his internal enemies and then started increasing persecution of Jews, we continued very much with “business as usual”. And…corporations were very active then. The whole world went to Berlin in 1936 to participate in the Olympics…affirming Germany that way. And so we weren’t very good in terms of actively opposing a brutal system. If you look at Iraq and how we have been providing Iraq arms and support at the time when they were killing…using chemical weapons, again, we weren’t very good at this. So the history has not been that great, but occasionally it has been positive. And I’m actually concerned about what’s happening now. I mean when George Bush said, “Let’s work to create a new world order”, I think the underlying kernel of idea that the community of nations assumes responsibility for the welfare of citizens of different places was a sound one, an important one, a valuable one. Now, we go into Somalia and in response to problems there, our tendency is to pull away, and to say “No, this is too complex a world. We don’t know what to do, and let’s not get so easily involved”. To me, the question is, what can we learn from what happened in Somalia? How can we do this kind of thing better? And…it ought to be the community of nations. But for example, when we go into Somalia it is extremely important, from my standpoint, to work with people there locally. Not to go there and know what it is we need to do and impose it, but to work jointly, and try to create connections among local groups, and work to resolve conflict and dispute between them in a variety of different ways. So what I am saying is that it is important for us to be active bystanders in the world because these things will happen. It’s important to keep a real system when this happens and we have to learn from some of our mistakes to know how to do this better.

HEFFNER: We have just a couple of minutes left. I want to shift again back to the domestic scene and ask whether there is any indication that as bystanders we are more active, whether the Kitty Genovese situation is not as likely to be repeated today. As you track the things we do today, what do you find?

STAUB: Well, we don’t have evidence on this particular point. And some of the forces that make people passive in a case like Kitty Genovese, who 38 witnesses heard in the middle of the night in their apartments, this woman screaming for help on the street, and some of them opened their windows but didn’t take action. They really didn’t do anything. When everything was over, it was “somebody call the police”. Some of the things that inhibit people are things like a refusal of responsibility; knowing that there are many other people who might take action so why should it be me? At other times it’s looking around and nobody reacting, so, not knowing whether action is needed or not; feeling self-conscious about assuming the responsibility of stepping forward. And I think that what we need to give much more education of people about when to interfere at a time like that with help. We know that from some research and psychology that when people are educated about these factors that inhibit them they are more likely to be helpful afterwards in an emergency situation. So my sense is that people are often quite helpful, but there are these forces that inhibit them. And they inhibit them more if they are violent and there are a lot of these things happening. So we need to do some education and get people to learn that when they do take action they change themselves as a result, and then they can also influence others to take action.

HEFFNER: I guess that when we get down to it, it comes right down to the fact that good begets good. And I guess that’s the point that bad begets bad because I have to say our time is up. Thank you so much for joining me today Dr. Staub.

STAUB: It’s my pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s themes, about today’s intriguing guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

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