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ISU Professor Said ByStander Effect Explains New York Post Subway Death Photo

ISU Prof. Craig Anderson said a photo of a man taken just before his death in a New York subway wouldn't exist if R. Umar Abbasi had been alone in the train station.

A New York man, who was pushed off the subway platform in Times Square and hit by a train moments later, was photographed with one arm slung over the platform's edge trying to reach safety as the train approached.

A number of people stood by watching Ki-Suck Han's desperate attempt to save himself, including a photographer who raced toward him snapping photos. The photographer, R. Umar Abbasi, said on the Today Show and on CNN that he hoped that the flash would alert the subway operator and said that he would have reached down to grab the man if he could have.

However an ISU professor said the reason no one helped had little to do with ability to help and Abbasi and others were instead paralyzed by the bystander effect, according to a report from ISU news. Excerpts of the report follow below:

There is little doubt in Craig Anderson’s mind that if the photographer, who snapped the controversial New York Post picture, was the only person there at that moment, the photo would not exist.

“If he was the only one on that [subway] platform, he would have certainly dropped the camera and gone to pull the guy off the tracks,” said Anderson, Distinguished Professor of psychology at Iowa State University.

“People take their cues on how to define a situation from other people,” said Anderson. “It turns out that you’re more likely to get people to view this as an emergency situation when there’s only one person around than when there are many.”

Even if someone recognizes the situation as an emergency, someone must step up to take action. Anderson said in a crowd people are less likely to take that responsibility.

“The thought is that someone else either should be taking care of this or someone else already has,” said Anderson. “It’s not my role to be the hero, to risk my life to save someone else. This is not necessarily a conscious reasoning process, but something that can happen so quickly and automatically that we call it a decision but it’s not really a decision.”

Anderson said that there might not have been time to intervene in this case but even if there was it takes a lot to bring a bystander into action.

“A lot of things essentially have to go right in order to get the kind of bystander intervention that’s needed, especially in a fast-paced emergency,” said Anderson. “In this case, if the photographer had been the only bystander, he would have likely noticed the event, decided quickly that it was an emergency, felt responsibility for taking action and then gone to the edge of the platform to try to help the man get out of the way of the train.”

 

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