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Answer the call

The Christmas season usually brings stories of joy and hope. But often at this time of year there are also reports of horrific events where bystanders appear almost indifferent to the plight of fellow humans. In Christchurch recently it was reported that at least one person who heard the screams of a young woman being repeatedly struck by a car did nothing to intervene. There have been similar recent reports in England and Australia. From Canada comes the story of a homeless man in Vancouver who lay unconscious in his burning blanket after a seizure last week, while one woman sat nearby, chatting on her cellphone as the smoke swirled around her.

Such reports become almost instant parables of alienation and inhumanity in our times. But the media, quick to denounce what it sees as callousness or at least apathy, is wrong to assume that these people are uncaring. Many later report being deeply disturbed by what they have witnessed.

Psychologists call it the bystander effect. This predicts that, as the number of bystanders increases, the likelihood of someone stepping forward to help in an attack decreases. You think you're safe in a crowd? Bad move. The bigger the group of witnesses, the less likely any individual is to help. The bystander effect applies even to doctors - researchers have shown you're better off collapsing in front of a single doc than a hundred. We take our cues from those around us; and we fear losing face. Even when a room is deliberately filled with smoke, experimental subjects will behave as if nothing is wrong because everyone else seems unconcerned.

History is littered with cases, but the most infamous was the chilling 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old New Yorker who was brutally stabbed outside her apartment building. On her way home from work, she was randomly attacked by a stranger late one night and it was her fate that first inspired research into this phenomenon.

It took 40 minutes after her assailant first stabbed her for Kitty Genovese to die. Her attacker left when one man yelled to leave her alone. But after five minutes he returned and followed the trail of blood. He proceeded to rape her and then stabbed her to death. Police investigation showed that, although no one saw the entire incident, at least 38 people heard or observed portions of the attack. But even the man who finally called the police dithered until it was too late, calling a friend for advice before acting.

Why is it so hard to help? In his extraordinary bestseller Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam shows how, for the first two-thirds of the 20th century, a tide bore people deeper into the life of their communities. But a few decades ago that tide changed and a "treacherous rip current" started to pull us out of reach of each other. Hard to believe when we're all frantically texting. But Putnam stresses the difference between bridging and bonding. Bridging is inclusive - think the civil rights movement - while bonding is exclusive: think the racially based gangs locked in territorial war for the Cronulla Beach.

The trend isn't helped, as Lynne Truss, author of Talk to the Hand notes, by the fact that virtually the only theme of popular television is competitive, material self-interest. "The message of a vast amount of popular television can be summed up with the words 'And you can eff off too.'" Similarly, our obsession with mobile phones has made us self-important, solipsistic and rude.

And yet what is so extraordinary is that this is the year - it began with an overwhelming human response to a tsunami - in which we have suddenly decided to take a stand on what matters. There is a growing cry for action against world poverty - in a landmark agreement at the G8 summit in Gleneagles rich countries pledged to double aid to Africa and cancel the debt of the world's poorest countries. And there is a growing push to lower trade barriers for farmers in developing countries. It is still true that the vast majority of Africa's children will go to bed hungry every night in 2006. But the first 14 African states will finally begin to be free of their crippling debt.

In fact, 2005 may well go down in history as the year the nations of the world first began to shake off the bystander effect.

All of us here at the Listener join in wishing you a very happy New Year.