United Airlines and the Bystander Effect

Bystander effect

It isn’t at all surprising that the incident aboard that United Airlines flight has prompted so much bad press for United and the Chicago Airport police.

This should never have happened.

Naturally, some on Twitter are even having a little cruel fun at United’s expense.

Okay, I admit. I retweeted that.

It’s funny.

And the truth is, United brought this ridicule down on themselves.

But even after I posted about this incident yesterday, there was this nagging feeling that I couldn’t shake.

Did anybody else find themselves asking, “Why didn’t someone offer to take that man’s place in leaving the plane?”

As far as I know, nobody did.

Yes, many of the passengers expressed their horror at the way he was manhandled.

And several took the time to pull out their smart phones and film the incident.

But before it escalated to police involvement, all it would have taken was one passenger offering to give up his seat so that this doctor could stay on the plane.

If someone did that, United wouldn’t have this public relations disaster. The police never would’ve come aboard. And that man wouldn’t have gotten roughed up.

But everybody just let it unfold.

There’s actually a term for this: the Bystander Effect.

Psychology Today offers this definition:

The bystander effect occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation.

It’s also sometimes called “Genovese Syndrome” after the brutal 1964 murder of a Queens woman named Kitty Genovese. Despite her screams for help, none of her neighbors did a thing to intervene — not even call the police.

Sure, we have reason to call out United and airport police. This was the King Freak of mishandled events.

But I can’t help but wonder why nobody else on the plane offered to give up his or her seat as a way to diffuse the situation before it escalated.

Have we become a society of voyeurs?

We’d rather watch life unfold through the screen of our smart phones than actually participate in it.

Take a look at this picture. I’m sure you’ve seen it before.

Most people saw that picture and were horrified. How can that woman just walk by and not even look up from her phone?

But how is what happened on that United flight any different?

Sure, lots of passengers had the forethought to film it.

But why did nobody, when seeing the police come aboard, stand up and say, “Listen, this is crazy. I’ll get off and take a later flight. Just leave that guy alone!”

Now, I realize it’s probably unfair of me to judge these people or the situation. I wasn’t there.

But like that photo on the Westminster Bridge, I watch the footage of that United incident and am completely stunned that nobody did anything except pull out their iPhones and film it.

I remember one time, I went to see a play called The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs. It’s about a South African judge who was jailed for his involvement in the anti-Apartheid movement.

Before the play began, they had white actors dressed as police who patrolled the theater. Meanwhile they had African American actresses who tried to sneak in.

A little over the top, I agree.

Any old how. One of the actresses who snuck into the theater hid behind me and my friends.

And when the “policeman” found her and tried to drag her away, I grabbed him around his leg and wouldn’t let go.

It took two of my friends to get me to stop. One of them kept screaming, “They’re actors! Diann! They’re just actors!!”

Apparently, I don’t suffer from the Bystander Effect.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think anyone should have pulled the police off this guy on the plane. That’s not what I’m saying at all.

Clearly this incident was going on before the police were brought to the scene.

Yet nobody offered to be the one to deplane instead?

Is it just me or does anyone else find that remarkable?

Frankly, this whole incident is a train wreck.

And not just because of the violent way this man was removed. But also because of the inaction on the part of the other passengers.

Well, “inaction” except for the presence of mind to film the damn thing.

Could you imagine what would’ve happened if the passengers on Flight 93 had done nothing but pull out their cell phones and film the terrorists hijacking the plane?

At least they didn’t suffer from the Bystander Effect.

Tell me I’m wrong to be disturbed by this. I can take it.

But I do worry that we’re becoming a society of onlookers. We see tragedy, violence — or even an isolated incident — as nothing more than drama for our viewing pleasure.

And even worse, we’re not just content to passively watch these incidents unfold. But we also choose to film them for the viewing pleasure of others.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. But I find that just a little bit disturbing.

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4 thoughts on “United Airlines and the Bystander Effect

  • April 11, 2017 at 1:54 pm
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    Am I naive in thinking that nobody else wanted to screw up their week’s schedule and plans by taking a next-day plane in return for an $800 United voucher, which is what I understand was the best offer United made? Would you have?

    As has been posted on many other sites, United could and should have offered a better incentive. Even $800 cash would have improved their chances of getting volunteers.

    Even so, I agree with your main point, which is that we’ve become far less inclined to act when we can instead video the action and maybe get a nice chunka change from a media outlet if we get exclusive footage of, or a good angle on, something bad enough.

    • April 11, 2017 at 3:54 pm
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      Good points. And as someone on Facebook pointed out, once this doctor started making a scene, he HAD to be removed. Which I didn’t consider, I’ll be honest. But it still bugs me that folks treated this whole scene like it was the in-flight movie. And then started filming it. The voyeuristic aspect is what really bugs me.

      • April 11, 2017 at 8:11 pm
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        Rush Limbaugh used some info today that says the dude had already gotten off the plane then somehow got back aboard, then that’s when the stuff happened. Will we ever know the truth of this sickening affair?

  • April 11, 2017 at 5:31 pm
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    Boy, do I agree re the voyeurism. I’ve long thought that Gen X or the Millennials or whoever is behind the insane rise of social media has a 6th-grade mentality that includes spying and tattling for fun. Shudder. It’s not a rational adult world anymore. (You might argue that it’s never been one, but lip service used to be paid.)

    And to add to the doctor’s nightmare, now his unsavory past is being dug up. This is also a peeve of mine, the loss of the right to be forgotten, as it’s called.

    You might find this aviation lawyer’s opinion interesting: http://www.philly.com/philly/columnists/stu_bykofsky/United-Airlines-right-is-wrong-for-passengers-.html

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