Joan Smith: A nosey passer-by could save a life like Yueyue's

 

Share

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.

www.politicalblonde.com; twitter.com/@polblonde

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Beware of the jovial buffoon who picks fights overseas

Boyd Tonkin
 

My shameful failure to live up to the spirit of Christmas

Howard Jacobson
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all