The Unresponsive Bystander sample essay
In the chapter “Where There’s Smoke,” Latane and Darley (1970) narrate the proceedings and outcomes of their experiment employing the use of smoke as treatment which serves to illustrate further the validity of the authors’ contention that the presence of other people actually deters an individual from reacting decisively to a potential emergency.
Through the “smoke experiment, Latane and Darley were able to observe the individual behavior of the bystander in a simulated emergency environment and later prove their thesis that “the constraints on behavior in public combined with the processes of social influence would lessen the likelihood that members of three-person groups would act to cope with the emergency.”
The “smoke” research is primarily a social science experiment where the presence of other people is considered the variable in determining what Latane and Darley coin as the “bystander intervention in emergencies.” Under the guise of conducting an interview on the problems of urban life, the target respondents—male Columbia University students residing on or near the campus— are invited to participate in the experiment through a telephone call without any other means of contact with the experimenters.
They are subsequently assigned into three categories: the alone group or the control group, where the respondents are left by themselves in the experiment room; the two-passive confederates group or the first variable group, where the respondents are joined in by two other men pretending to be respondents to the experiment; and the three naïve bystanders group or the second variable group, where there were three respondents all at once in the same room.
All categories of respondents were made to answer a questionnaire supposedly on the problems of urban life and while they were doing this, smoke was slowly piped in through a small vent in the wall of the room as a stimuli; the basic assumption being that the smoke would “create an ambiguous but potentially dangerous situation” or, as the title suggests, lead the respondents in the room into thinking that something was burning.
The smoke, generated by the reaction of titanium tetrachloride and water vapor, was allowed to filter in a few minutes after the respondent had started on the questionnaire and continued to pour into the room until the respondent decides to report it. After four minutes it would fill the room “enough to obscure vision, produce a mildly acrid odor, and interfere with breathing.”
Results of the research, although expected, were interesting. As predicted, the respondents in the Alone category “behaved in a very reasonable manner” in which, after moments of indecision and hesitation he promptly investigated and reported the presence of smoke to “somebody in the hall who looked as if he belonged there.” On the other hand, majority of those left in the room with the two passive confederates, “coughed, rubbed their eyes, and opened the window” but failed to report the incident even if it had filled the room to an uncomfortable level.
Those in the three naïve bystanders group performed similarly to the two passive confederates group despite the fact that there should have been thrice as many chance that the smoke would be promptly reported as in the Alone category. In the post-experiment interview conducted later, the experimenters found out that those who did not report the smoke uniformly “rejected the idea that it was fire” and instead created “an astonishing variety of alternative explanations” which disregarded the potentially dangerous nature of the source of smoke.
While the experiment proves their thesis, Latane and Darley warn the reader from jumping to conclusions or expecting similar results in predicting the individual behavior of human beings, or what they call bystanders, in times of emergencies when there are other people around but in distinctively different settings.
They demonstrate, for instance, how the results of the smoke experiment may not be wholly applicable when fire breaks out in a theater or when any other emergency arises in a crowded place. They are quick, however, in pointing out that in a crowd of a thousand people, there would be a thousand chance that someone will react impulsively—or curiously—to the stimuli and report it promptly to the audience, creating a much bigger potential disaster such as a stampede.
The smoke experiment therefore affirms the applicability of the social impact theory by showing a possible explanation by which an individual, in the presence of other people, is more likely to restrain his or her reactions in the face of an emergency or a potential emergency. It enhances the theory further by showing how individuals tend to act in conformity with others, how individuals tend to act out what they believe is expected of them by others, and how society, in turn, is able to define the norms and rules by which human beings conduct their daily lives, their reactions, and their expectations of others.
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