Large groups can influence bystanders


For The Times Leader

WHEELING – Images that show an unconscious Weirton girl being carried by her wrists and ankles during an August party in Steubenville have many people asking why no one stepped forward to help her.

According to a local psychiatrist, the answer to that may reside in how group settings influence people’s behavior.

The photos and a video were taken of the girl the night of Aug. 11-12 when she allegedly was raped by two Steubenville High School students. The 16-year-old defendants will go on trial Feb. 13 in Jefferson County Juvenile Court.

Several students testified during an October probable cause hearing that the alleged victim was unresponsive during the rape. During that hearing, one student who testified said it “wasn’t his place to determine if there was a sexual assault.”

According to Dr. Imad Melhem, a child and adolescent psychiatrist based in St. Clairsville, the problem with trying to decipher human behavior is that it is not an exact science. A number of factors come into play when attempting to determine how a person may react to any given situation, he said.

Melhem said there are some studies that attempt to address the matter. Speaking in general and not specifically about the Steubenville rape case, Melhem said some studies have shown group settings do influence people’s behavior – even if someone is in distress.

“The higher the number of people, the less likely there will be an intervention,” he said.

In a group setting, a person may believe if no one else is reacting or helping, they shouldn’t, either. They conform to the group’s behavior, right or wrong.

However, other studies have shown that if it is just two people and one of them is in need of help, the bystander will react because there is no group to influence his or her behavior, and there is no group to provide them cover for not reacting.

Variations of these studies show if the bystander has been implicated and is no longer anonymous, they likely will act even in a group setting, he said.

“If they think they will see that person later, their behavior will change,” Melhem said. “If they think they will be implicated they may intervene.”

Linda Reeves, victim advocate and director of the Sexual Assault Help Center in Wheeling and Steubenville, said she does not know the psychology behind why people sometimes stand by while others are being hurt. But one of her group’s duties is to conduct programs in schools about bullying and sexual harassment, and to teach children about how to intervene safely during a situation.

“I don’t have the answer to why, but it is disconcerting to us. We need to provide more opportunities to educate and talk with youth about their role … in a situation like that so they don’t feel like they will get in trouble,” Reeves said. “We need to teach morals and values and that we need to look out for each other.”

The center teaches children, starting in elementary school, what to do when someone is being hurt. First, they are taught to make sure they are in no danger of being injured themselves. Then, they are taught to go to an adult or call 911 themselves – and, if possible, to go as a group to reach an adult or call the police.

“We ask them, ‘Wouldn’t you want someone to step up for you?’ At Penn State the situation was similar. There were witnesses to something that happened there. Although there were reports made, they were not to the right people,” Reeves noted, referencing the recent scandal at the university.

Reeves said as a direct result of the Steubenville rape case, some of the center’s clients find themselves reliving past abuses. Anyone, she said, can get help from the center. To talk to a counselor, call 304-234-1783 or the crisis line at 800-884-7242.