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Bystander effect to blame for public apathy during violent crimes: Experts

What's common at the sites of incidents of crimes of passion? The presence of passive spectators either choosing not to get involved or worse, filming the crime on their smartphones to share on social media for a few likes and followers.
Last Updated : 22 June 2024, 09:43 IST

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New Delhi: As 32-year-old Rohit Yadav clobbered his "ex-girlfriend" Arati Yadav with a spanner in Maharashtra's Vasai earlier this week, the inaction of several bystanders was equally shocking, if not more.

Even as the 22-year-old woman collapsed, the man kept hitting her lifeless body while shouting "Kyun kiya aisa mere sath? (why did you do this to me)". The broad daylight murder was another in the list of similar incidents where people chose to remain mute spectators instead of restraining or apprehending the assailant.

In May last year, a 16-year-old girl was killed by her alleged boyfriend who stabbed her more than 30 times and hit her with a concrete slab on a busy street in Delhi’s Shahbad Dairy area.

Most of the people chose to walk past while some stood quietly, witnessing the gruesome act.

What's common at the sites of these incidents of crimes of passion? The presence of passive spectators either choosing not to get involved or worse, filming the crime on their smartphones to share on social media for a few likes and followers.

The general apathy among the public towards such incidents can be attributed to the bystander effect and the psychological phenomenon of diffusion of responsibility, experts said.

According to clinical psychologist Shweta Sharma, when there are several witnesses, an individual might feel “less personal responsibility to act”.

“We call it a bystander effect. There are some psychological and social factors behind this bystander effect. The first thing is the diffusion of responsibility, when many people are present so individuals might assume that someone else will intervene,” Sharma told PTI.

This thought of staying inactive gains strength from fear for one’s safety. In a similar incident in October 2022, a 19-year-old was chased down a busy street by three men and stabbed to death in Delhi’s Sunder Nagri. It happened barely a month after a man was stabbed in a busy market of Northwest Delhi’s Begumpur.

“They also fear for their personal safety. They feel if they are going to intervene, it might put their own safety at risk, especially if the situation involves violence,” she added.

The CCTV footage of the Vasai incident showed a man trying to stop Rohit Yadav from hitting the girl only to be pushed back as the accused waved the spanner at him.

Sharma added that the increasing presence of social media in daily life has also normalised such incidents whose videos go “viral” – resulting in a lack of confidence in people to determine the appropriate behaviour in such situations.

“If others are not reacting, a person may interpret the situation as less urgent or assume help is not needed… They don't feel confident to act on it.

"So, this lack of confidence is also a part of the bystander effect,” Sharma, a panel psychologist at the Juvenile Justice Board, Gurugram, said.

Another disturbing reality of such macabre incidents is that there are people who record the crimes and then circulate them on social media to satisfy their insatiable hunger for likes, comments and followers.

In September 2022, a young woman from a village in Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh, was allegedly gang-raped, stripped and walked for 2 km naked, battered, bruised and bleeding, her trauma captured in a grainy video that went viral.

In the Vasai incident, police detained a man and a woman who shot videos of the attack and uploaded them on social media.

Forensic psychologist Deepti Puranik called it a new trend that has made people “less empathetic towards the victim”.

"Currently, we are in a digital world where technology is easily accessible, and people are hooked to their mobile. Everyone wants to upload something unique on their social media accounts and get maximum likes to become popular,” Puranik told PTI.

"In the competition to get maximum likes, individuals have lost their sense of right or wrong and are less empathetic," she added.

A global programme for sensitisation about mental health issues, and violent crimes is the way forward, both Puranik and Sharma noted.

"Sensitisation about the violence, sensitisation about consensual relationship, sensitisation about the emotional regulation, this is much more important, only than certain kinds of acts of violence, especially in intimate partner relationships will decrease," Sharma said.

Puranik said it is important to create awareness programmes to sensitise the public towards their responsibility.

"When you are not helping a citizen when a crime is happening it means you are a passive participant of that crime. One most important way by which we can address the issue of bystander apathy is to create awareness programmes for the public,” she said.

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Published 22 June 2024, 09:43 IST

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