Two days ago, a little girl died in hospital in China after being run over a week earlier by two vans. Two-year-old Wang Yue, known as Yueyue, wandered into the street and was hit by the first van, which left her bleeding in the road. In the next seven minutes, around a dozen people walked or cycled past without stopping to help, until Yueyue was run over by a second van. It was then that a woman pulled the toddler to the side of the road, where her mother found her shortly afterwards.
These events were captured on CCTV in the city of Foshan, and images of the child lying crumpled in the street are almost unbearable to watch. They've sparked a debate in China, with some arguing that the incident is a consequence of the Cultural Revolution, when people learned to avoid getting involved in anyone else's business. There's even been a suggestion that the country needs a law compelling strangers to offer assistance, as though that would turn bystanders into Good Samaritans.
The parable has featured in Western reports of Yueyue's death, implying that such indifference to suffering is somehow specific to China. But while it is true that China is an authoritarian society, it is far from being the only place where people are reluctant to help others. On Christmas Day last year, a Brighton woman told 1,048 Facebook "friends" she had taken a fatal overdose, yet no one went to her flat or contacted the police until it was too late.
The reasons people don't respond in a crisis vary from outright callousness to not knowing what to do. I once emerged from the cinema to find a man lying on the pavement, totally ignored by people coming out of nearby pubs and restaurants. When I knelt beside him, trying to figure out whether he was unconscious or drunk (the latter), strangers rushed to offer their mobile phones. They were willing to help, but only if someone else took charge of the situation.
This reaction is so well known in psychology that it's called the "bystander effect". It's counterintuitive: the more people who witness a traumatic event, the less likely they are to intervene, leaving it to someone else to take the initiative. The case that gave rise to the theory is that of Kitty Genovese, a young woman murdered in New York in 1964; initial reports suggested that 38 people witnessed Genovese being attacked over a half-hour period, but none went to help or called the police. It prompted a great deal of soul-searching, as well as theories about the alienating effect of urban living.
Years later, it transpired that far fewer people witnessed the murder and Genovese's assailant returned after initially being scared off by a man who shouted from a window. Nothing can excuse the small number who realised what was happening and did nothing, but the case became an urban myth that confirmed pre-existing prejudices. Now the death of Yueyue is in danger of becoming a moral fable about contemporary China, leaving the most important question unaddressed.
How can we encourage more people to intervene in such events? Teaching first aid in schools is an obvious place to start, given how few of us know even the basics. But fear of interfering in other people's business is a powerful inhibitor that raises another counterintuitive suggestion. Life might be pleasanter, not to mention safer, if we all stopped worrying about being too nosy.