The Bystander Effect in NYC: More Good Than Harm

The Bystander Effect is saving lives in the NYC subway system.

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A few months ago, while I was riding the F train home, a homeless man entered and started throwing a walking stick at the train doors and floor while yelling and cursing aggressively at the passengers. All of the passengers in the car, however, stared down at their phones, pretending not to notice. This is the strategy that most New Yorkers use: keep their heads down and ignore what’s happening. It often helps avoid provocation and involvement in altercations. Staring at or answering back to the aggressor can escalate the situation. But this was not the case on May 1, when Jordan Neely aggressively yelled and begged passengers on a train for money and food. Daniel Penny, a 30-year-old ex-marine, grabbed Neely, pinned him to the floor, and choked him until he died. While two passengers helped Penny subdue Neely, others only sat and watched.

New Yorkers have a habit of minding their own business, regardless of what is happening around them. They ignore aggressors on trains, walk around fights, and avoid aggressive interactions even if others may need help. This behavior is called the bystander effect: people are less likely to aid someone in public because they don’t believe it’s their responsibility. 

The bystander effect is often caused by fear. When I saw the man throwing his walking stick, I looked down at my phone because I was afraid of him. It may seem unethical to ignore someone possibly being attacked, but while intervening may seem like being a good samaritan, it can actually put more people in danger. Instead of defusing or resolving the situation, intervening may provoke the aggressor and escalate the situation. There have been many cases where people have been hurt or even killed after trying to step in. In 2020, a man who tried to intervene in a fight on a subway platform in Harlem was shoved onto the tracks and hit by a train. In 2021, a Chinese immigrant was fatally stabbed after trying to break up a fight in Brooklyn. In February of 2023, Jemina Garay was shot in the head after trying to be a peacemaker of a fight in her apartment building. These are only a few of the countless scenarios of interveners being seriously injured or killed in recent years. Nobody wants to turn into the next gruesome statistic.

When people like Penny decide to take matters into their own hands, it creates a bigger problem. Instead of subduing the situation, one man is dead, another faces up to 15 years in prison, passengers are frightened, and people are protesting across the city. All of these consequences arose from just one case of intervention on the subway. The bystander effect is a positive thing for New York. When people mind their own business, as sad as it sounds, they save lives and prevent minor aggressions from escalating. In a way, this fear-induced bystander effect is helping to keep our city together.

Intervening on the subway can also have legal implications. By intervening, you are essentially joining a fight. Even with good intentions, any interference could be seen as aggression or assault, which could lead to legal danger. Now, Penny is facing up to 15 years in prison for second-degree manslaughter. One can protect oneself from legal scrutiny if one leaves it up to the people trained and permitted to get involved.

There is also often a lack of information regarding public conflicts. Bystanders may not understand the context of the altercation and may wrongly assume that it is either a dangerous situation or one that they should be getting involved in. It isn’t possible to fully understand the state of mind of the people involved in the conflict. Intervening without correctly assessing and understanding the problem can cause unintended consequences and put people at risk.

Defusing hostile situations should be left to the police and authorized personnel instead. They are specifically trained to handle those situations, and they have the skills and experience necessary to do so. By leaving the situation to the professionals, you can expect that the situation will be addressed better than if you intervene yourself. The average bystander does not have the training to settle aggressive situations on the subway, whereas those that do would likely respond in a calm, experienced manner. Penny, on the other hand, had training in the Marines, which trains to fight and kill enemies. Instead of leaving it to those experienced in subway aggression, he reverted to his Marines training, violently responding to Neely as if he were an enemy and eventually killing him. His actions were not heroic by any means.

The best way to avoid issues like that of Neely and Penny is to follow the New York strategy of not getting involved. When Penny saw Neely on the subway, he chose to channel his sense of danger through violent action rather than keep his head down or contact an authority. Many people try to break up or get involved in fights on the subway, and it often just makes the situation worse. Many unnecessary altercations and injuries can be prevented by avoiding confrontation and embracing the bystander effect in New York.