From boys to Good Samaritans

A recent Public Spiritedness Award by the SCDF, to the sole person in a crowd to check on victims of an Yishun accident, is all the more deserving because of his age: 12. Ashvin Gunasegaran did the right thing instinctively despite the inaction of adults around him. Some of them were said to be taking photos with their phones, and there is indeed some evidence of this.

What is one to make of this all-too-common obsession with digital gadgets that leads people to shoot first and render help, if at all, later? However strong the impulse to connect with or impress others via social media, the pressing needs of the real world should be the main priority. In the Yishun accident, a pregnant woman was crying and even though the schoolboy could not do much more than have someone call for an ambulance, his presence was likely reassuring.

Of course, there is more to the incident than urbanites supposedly turning into digital voyeurs and street gawkers. Social psychological research points to the so-called bystander effect that inhibits individuals from reacting. Some high-profile cases elsewhere suggest that the larger the number of people around, the less likely that some in the crowd will take it upon themselves to render direct assistance.

Sometimes a situation might be ambiguous, as it was at Yishun, perhaps as there were no cries for help or screams from the victims. Unfortunately, even when some privately feel something is amiss, if no one reacts, all will incorrectly assume the situation is not that bad. Another factor is the diffusion of responsibility in a crowd when individuals feel only a fraction of the civic duty to assist. Often, many choose to think that someone else out there might be more skilled to assist.

Rather than snapping photos, one should snap out of such vague assumptions and step forward to offer help whenever an emergency arises.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 05, 2016, with the headline 'From boys to Good Samaritans'. Print Edition | Subscribe