Posted by: Ben Vickers on November 11, 2011
Are our politicians all victims of the bystander effect? Have we largely succumbed like people in an emergency situation who stand by as if waiting for someone else to resolve it?
Social psychologists have documented the bystander effect many times. It is also known as the Genovese syndrome, after the case of a New York woman who was stabbed outside her apartment in 1964 - her cries were supposedly heard by neighbors, who didn’t alert police.
There is a parallel case to be drawn with events such as the European crisis, where, with the benefit of hindsight, it is mystifying why politicians, regulators and bankers didn’t react earlier to prevent events getting out of hand.
In a series of classic psychology studies, Bibb Latane and John Darley determined that the amount of time it takes someone to take action and seek help in an emergency varies depending on how many other observers are in the same place. The more people there are, the longer it takes them to raise the alarm or react in any way.
The symptoms of the bystander effect are a diffusion of responsibility, as people expect others to take charge, and pressure not to step out of socially accepted patterns of behavior. Does this seem familiar?
The European Union and its institutions, with responsibilities shared between national governments and centralized authorities along lines that are continually evolving, lends itself to a large bystander effect. The solution is what European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was referring to on Wednesday when he called for “more Europe” in a speech in Germany. The EU will have to “unite or face irrelevance,” he said. Stronger central EU institutions are the key to avoiding a repetition of Europe’s problems.