When you witness trouble in Vegas, do you intervene?
Fri, Jul 27, 2012 (3:11 p.m.)
He screamed that she better respect him; she screamed that he should be less controlling. I looked the other way. They were still at it when I left the store, only she was outside the car and he was parked across the fire lane, demanding that she get back in. I hesitated—what if this girl needed help? Should I ask? Should I offer her a ride? She said she wasn’t going anywhere until he consoled her “like a good boyfriend.” If she were in real danger, I rationalized, she wouldn’t tell him off; she’d call the cops.
Later, I was haunted by the thought that I should have intervened—even though the guy was menacing and I was alone. If that ABC show What Would You Do? has any value, it’s illustrating that one brave bystander can empower a righteous crowd.
The show filmed at one of the Vegas locations of Hash House a Go Go in 2009, but what would happen if the hidden cameras and fake conflicts hit the Strip? From the streets to the nightclubs to the casino floors, the constant rush is good camouflage for trouble. We expect to see things out of the ordinary. And the obvious presence of bouncers and cops makes us think: We’re safe. It’s not our problem. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
And what would a sociologist say about the impact of that unique environment on our sense of solidarity and instinct to intervene? After telling him the story of my near-intervention, UNLV professor Robert Futrell was ready with insights. Futrell led an expansive, groundbreaking 2010 study called the Las Vegas Metropolitan Area Social Survey, which delved into the dynamics and attitudes of the local community.
Looking back, I wish I had done things differently, that I had at least asked the young woman if she needed help that night. But it was late, and I was alone and scared to get in the middle. There have been headline-making instances of bystanders not acting when they witness conflict, one of the most famous being the ’60s-era Kitty Genovese murder case.
She’s in an area of New York City surrounded by thousands of people—brownstones, apartment buildings and so forth—crying out for help, crying out for help and no one comes to help her, and she’s actually murdered. So, what you get is essentially a bystander effect, where everyone’s a bystander; no one intervenes; no one takes action. It’s actually pretty common and can be explained sociologically, psychologically: The larger the group, the less responsibility for the individual, the less likely the person takes action.
That definitely applies to the Strip.
What we often think is that in communities people feel a certain sense of connectedness, responsibility, maybe some trust, and one might predict that you would intervene on those bases, but then we don’t. This is not uncommon. The social-psychological term for this, partly, is sense of diffusion of responsibility for taking action in cases where there seems to be a need for help. And this is sort of a general condition of more urban vs. rural areas. The more people you get around, the more diffuse we feel the responsibility for action is. … That might be increased on the Strip.
What about the overall vibe of the Strip? Does that have an effect beyond just the feeling of the crowd?
One assumption we might expect in Las Vegas would be the assumption of anything goes; what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas. It plays off all these cultural ideas about the wildness ... the lack of responsibility. You can even do away with your own responsibility while you’re here. So why should you be responsible for others in that situation? And there also could be the factor of, as a tourist: “Look, I’m on vacation. This is not what I do; this is not what I expect.” It could also be, “I’m on vacation; I don’t want to have this be part of what my experience is or remember it.”
Is there anything to the way people cut loose here, the drunkenness and the loss of inhibitions, the provocative clothes and behavior that might be a little out of character? Do bystanders see an intoxicated woman in a mini-skirt in a nightclub as less of a “damsel of distress,” if you will, than someone in a cardigan just walking down the street?
The woman—and we see this happen repeatedly, especially in rape cases—the woman who is dressed for the club, dressed in a mini-skirt, dressed in a “provocative way,” the interpretation can also be, “Well, she deserves this response because she’s egging it on.”
Yikes … That makes me think of an episode of What Would You Do?, in which a mother gets exasperated with her two young daughters, kicks them out of the car and says they can walk home. In one set-up, she’s dressed poorly, smoking a cigarette and driving a beat-up car. In another, she’s in pearls and a shiny SUV. The bystanders act really differently given the visual. But in both cases, more of them act—and more quickly—than people tend to in fake scenarios involving adults.
What you saw was a confrontation between two adults. We tend to give much more credence to their sense of responsibility for their own actions vs. if it was between an adult and a child in a way that seemed unjust. The child is typically considered much more innocent and unable to protect himself, unable to think logically and that sort of thing, and we might be more likely to intervene in that circumstance. So with them simply being adults, you’re able to look away more easily. There is also, though, that dimension of safety. You don’t know what will happen. Does that person turn on you? And there’s no reason to feel guilty for thinking those ways given the state of the world.
Considering the data gleaned from your survey of the Vegas metro area, is there something specific to the city that exacerbates a lack of action, other than the particulars of the Strip?
We asked questions about neighborhoods and neighbors: How much do you interact with neighbors? How much do you trust them? The picture we get is that people don’t interact with their neighbors very much on a face-to-face basis—borrowing sugar, hanging out over coffee, talking frequently, that sort of thing—which is not surprising to us. They don’t interact with them, but they say they trust them. One assumption is that the people we trust are the people we know. And how do you get to know somebody? You interact with them, more than just seeing their face. But here, in what has long been a very transient population, that sense of trust seems to develop primarily on the basis of regular observation. … You see them walking the dog, you see them pulling in after work.
Wow. That’s not much of a foundation.
In one sense we’re isolated, isolated in a world of many, many people very close to us in proximity, spatially. I mean, we live in a place with too many people, and yet, we’re socially isolated because we don’t interact with them typically very much. We see them, we give trust, but how far does that trust extend, and how likely are we to act on behalf of them? That might feed into the same sort of response you had at your community grocery store. … Had this happened in a small rural town, the likelihood is that you would say, “What the hell are you doing?” (Laughs) Either you’re an outsider, and you shouldn’t be doing this here, or I know your brother, aunt or uncle, and why are you doing this? Stop.
And yet, there are people who just dive in no matter what the context. My roommate is tiny, maybe 90 pounds, and she told me a story about jumping in between a big guy and the girl he was roughing up against a car somewhere on the Strip. There were lots of people around, but she was the one who acted.
It certainly speaks to her as an individual, but it also speaks to the power of the group. In the parking lot the other night you weren’t in a group. It was you and them. Probably other people would have shown up eventually, but who knows what would have happened? The power of the group makes us generally more courageous.
So the crowd can cause diffusion of responsibility, but it can also be empowering.
Yes, especially when there’s attention given to the scene. In an instance where everyone is walking by and everyone is inattentive or seemingly inattentive, it’s likely that you will remain inattentive. Although, people become attentive when someone intervenes.
I know each situation is unique and personal when it comes to the safety of intervening, but are there any basic guidelines for how to watch out for your community?
We try to institutionalize these things through neighborhood watches and neighborhood meetings, where people can meet one another and feel a connection beyond just the casual seeing them every so often. A lot of this is about group solidarity, whether or not you’re in the immediate presence of somebody or not. … Police will tell you this, too; the best thing you can do to protect yourself and your neighborhood or your community is to get to know who’s there. Because you know who’s there, you know who’s not supposed to be there. By knowing who’s there you create a sense of fellow feeling, of self and collective identification, and you act not only for your individual sake but you’re more likely to act for the sake of the group.
Given the transience you studied, that’s a hard thing for Vegas, especially in certain pockets of the Valley.
In some ways this seems intangible, the creation of deeper bonds of community. But it has super-tangible effects on safety, security and basic mental well being among people. … This is why things like First Friday are so crucial, not just that people drink and have fun and see art, but it gives an identity, in ways that we haven’t had it. We’re not just a tourist place; we’re a community of people who are living simultaneously together, and that is a locals-based event. Things like that on different scales, I think, help us with a sense of who we are as people, as individuals but individuals within communities who have responsibilities that go beyond just us as individuals. … We could all do better, I’m sure.
Except for my roommate, who is a badass.
(Laughs) Well, there are just some of those outliers.