Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


A sociologist reads a Twitter feed

So, Adam retweets a hysterical reference to a viral email about an absolute genius of a Xmas light display made to look like an accident with a ladder, and the hapless homeowner left hanging from the gutter of his house.
The email explains that the display was taken down after two days in large part because so many people were stopping to help, in some cases at risk to themselves.
After pausing a moment to reflect on the evil genius behind this idea, I immediately wondered how the willingness of passers-by to assist might vary according to the amount of traffic on the road passing the house. The notion, exemplified in the infamous Kitty Genovese murder, is that the willingness of people to “get involved” decreases as the (individually-perceived) number of possible interveners increases. If a passer-by knew the route was well-travelled, she would (so one theoretical formulation goes) be less likely to stop, whereas on an infrequently-used byway, she would be more likely to assist. (I later realized that the “cul-de-sac”scenario is more complex, in that drivers/walkers on such a road are much more likely to (think they) know the victim AND to think that their action or inaction will become known by others).
After having these thoughts, I was left chuckling at myself. Would most sane people have analyzed a prank in these terms? Maybe it was because I was reading Luce and Raiffa before breakfast…

2 comments on "A sociologist reads a Twitter feed"

  • Dissent says:

    If it’s any consolation, Chris, I was also talking about the Kitty Genovese case just a few weeks ago on my blog, in the context of a news story. Not a prank situation, but my mind jumped to the same kinds of questions you posed. And I never read Luce and Raiffa.
    Why don’t we just declare that we’re both sane, and gossip about those who didn’t think of the kinds of questions we pondered? 🙂

  • Concerning the story of Kitty Genovse, it is actually a bit of an urban myth. Recent re-analysis of the case has shown that the classic story of 38 onlookers doing nothing is not quite true. Instead, there were far fewer witnesses, there was not much to see, and the witnesses did intervene to some extent.

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