Wesley Perkins, professor of sociology, was quoted in an article in The Star, Toronto edition, about a 76-year-old man who lay helpless on a sidewalk after suffering a heart attack. Bystanders were reported to have passed him by or even gone out of their way to avoid him. He later died en route to a hospital.
“It’s a phenomenon social scientists call the bystander effect. If only one person is present at an emergency, he will feel a responsibility to act. But the more bystanders there are around, the more the obligation to help dissipates,” the article notes.
Perkins is quoted explaining, “When we see all these other people not doing anything, the only guidance we get is not to do anything ourselves. It’s our social nature.”
It continues, “We often justify our decision not to help by pitting the responsibility on the person in need, he said. For example, if that teenager on the street corner hadn’t been drinking, he wouldn’t be passed out and shivering. ‘We’re likely to make really tragic mistakes, though it’s not an excuse for it.'”
Perkins is a graduate of Purdue University, and he received his M.A., M. Div., M. Phil. and Ph.D. from Yale University. He is the author of dozens of journal articles about substance abuse prevention and has been honored with national awards for his work in preventing alcohol and drug abuse in colleges and universities. His work with David Craig, professor of chemistry at HWS, is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a premiere model for substance abuse prevention.
The full article follows.
“Norman Hemminger, 76: ‘Easygoing, simple guy who loved his life'”
Jesse McLean • Staff Reporter • December 27, 2009
Norman Hemminger was a man of routines.
Each morning the 76-year-old would leave his apartment in a small rooming house at Dundas St. E. and Jones Ave., and cut through nearby side streets until he reached Gerrard Square Shopping Centre.
At the mall, he would buy breakfast, stake out a spot on his favourite bench and strike up conversation with the closest passerby.
“He was just an easygoing, simple guy who loved his life. He did the same thing over and over,” said nephew Brian Hemminger. “As long as he had enough money for rent and to eat out every day, he was happy.”
Around 7 a.m. Tuesday, Hemminger had a heart attack just steps from his front door. He collapsed on the sidewalk. His cane and reading glasses lay around his feet as he rolled around, one arm outstretched in the air.
But people walked on by. One pedestrian even crossed the street in an apparent effort to avoid the man.
“Here was a human that needed help and people ignored him,” said Christine Carruthers, who stopped her car when she saw the stranger in distress.
She called 911 and an ambulance arrived in minutes. Hemminger died en route to the hospital.
Carruthers is still in disbelief that no one offered to help the man.
“It doesn’t matter who it is, no matter the situation. You should do what you can to help,” she said.
“When everyone else thinks someone else will help the person, no one will do it.”
It’s a phenomenon social scientists call the bystander effect. If only one person is present at an emergency, he will feel a responsibility to act. But the more bystanders there are around, the more the obligation to help dissipates.
“When we see all these other people not doing anything, the only guidance we get is not to do anything ourselves. It’s our social nature,” said H. Wesley Perkins, a professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York.
We often justify our decision not to help by pitting the responsibility on the person in need, he said. For example, if that teenager on the street corner hadn’t been drinking, he wouldn’t be passed out and shivering. “We’re likely to make really tragic mistakes, though it’s not an excuse for it.”
It’s a scenario that plays out too often in Toronto, said longtime street nurse Cathy Crowe. Around six homeless people die on city streets each month – and researchers say those figures are a conservative estimation.
“It’s horrible because it’s so easy to help. But a lot of people are numb to the effect. Literally, people walk over people on the sidewalks downtown,” Crowe said.
Hemminger’s family said they were grateful someone stopped in the end to help the dying man.
Hemminger was raised on a family farm in northern Manitoba. He was a young adult when he moved to Toronto’s east end – and he never left.
He had a mental disability but was very independent and social, his family said, and he easily won over new friends at the mall with his broad smile.
Part of his weekly routine included a Sunday trek to the Forward Baptist Church. He would often arrive an hour before the service began and sit alone. As the congregation trickled in, he would stand up and greet them.
The conversation subjects were limited, and most focused on Hemminger’s daily routine, said Rev. John McNeill.
“He would love to talk about his age. He was kind of surprised to be that old and thought it to be quite an achievement, which it is,” he said.
Bill Davison would often see Hemminger as he made his way up to the shopping centre.
He was easy to spot, especially when he sported a thick, blue-and-white camouflage jacket during the colder months.
The two would exchange waves or chat briefly about Davison’s new border terrier.
Davison said he is going to miss their encounters.
“He was a good man,” he said. “He just liked when people would say hello.”