This week’s Torah portion (Ki Teitzei), encourages us to not turn a blind eye towards the loss or destruction of another person’s possessions, even if that person is not a friend. Rather, one should act assertively to help save or recover those valuables. The Talmud extends this principle further to include saving one’s life.
The bystander effect
There is a well known psychological phenomenon called the bystander effect. In real life, this manifests in people ignoring a stranger who is being assaulted or is in a life threatening situation. Social psychologists have experimentally replicated these findings hundreds of times. They have found that the more people present, the less likely anyone is to help. Amazingly, this occurs even when our own life is in danger. When a heavily occupied room fills with smoke, even to the point of impairing vision and inducing coughing, the vast majority of people wait greater than five minutes before speaking up. The theory behind this phenomenon is that people assume other’s are more qualified and will take charge. However, more often than not, this leads to long, potentially catastrophic delays in victims receiving assistance.
If not you, who?
Fortunately, there are several factors that increase the chances of bystanders helping. One large aspect is cultural expectations. In cultures that value individual responsibility, people are much more likely to step forward in a time of need. If we take the Torah’s lesson to heart and ingrain in ourselves the responsibility to help other’s and not ignore their suffering, we can obliterate the bystander effect and create a safer, more altruistic society.