How to get Help from a Crowd

18:56 Fri 18 Jun 2010
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If you ever find yourself in serious need of help from people around you in a public place, follow these instructions:

  • Make explicit that you need help.
  • Make a request for help from a specific person, and call them out by pointing at them and addressing them by some characteristic that makes them stand out.
  • Make very clear what they should do.

Say something like “Help! You with the green pants, I need help, call [the police/an ambulance/etc.]”.

The key is to avoid the following:

  • Trusting that bystanders will understand the seriousness of the situation.
  • Trusting that bystanders will understand help is required.
  • Trusting that bystanders will understand what kind of help is required.
  • Trusting that bystanders will realize that someone else hasn’t already gone for help.
  • Letting each bystander share responsibility with the rest for acting (which will likely lead to no action).

Do not let bystanders figure these things out for themselves, no matter how obvious they seem.

These points come from Robert Cialdini’s Influence, which I recommend highly. In the section I was reading last night, he covers the case of Kitty Genovese, and goes through the psychological experiments which show that it’s very likely the various witnesses to her death were unaware of precisely what was going on and that she needed aid.

Cialdini argues that urban environments make it very likely that crowds around any emergency are likely to be composed of strangers, and that individuals will seek to avoid the embarrassment of taking something too seriously, as well as mistakenly assuming that those around them (who are doing the same thing) have more information—leading to each person, seeing that no-one else is reacting as if to a serious situation, assuming that the situation is in fact not serious at all.

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