We are all in this together

By Dr. Batya L. Ludman, Psy.D., FT · Published February 25, 2022

My brother, a psychology major in university, enlisted me, his dutiful younger sister, to help with one of his social psychology experiments.

We were to position ourselves on the third floor of the university library, me in the hallway, close to where people exited from the elevator and he a short nod away. When the timing was right, he gave the signal, and I was to drop a small pile of books and a stack of computer cards (welcome to the '70s) near the unsuspecting patrons, with the sole purpose of seeing how they responded.

Would they ignore the little scene I created or come to my aid and offer to help me pick up the books and cards? While some people helped pick up the dropped objects, most did not.

This fascinating study appeared to be indicative of how people typically respond. Some offer to help out and even look for these opportunities, whereas others ignore or pretend they didn't see anything. Since they didn't know me, it may have been easier to distance themselves from the situation and not assume any responsibility for helping out. After all, why should they get involved?

One might predict that the less similar the person who needed help was to someone, the less likely they might be to offer the other assistance. The similarity in age, physical appearance, gender, socioeconomic status or religion might lead to greater identification and a desire to help. Then too, if someone "like you" appears to be okay, and seems capable of handling the situation, do you "need" to get involved?

I remembered this experiment perhaps better than my brother, many years later, because how people chose to respond that night directly impacted how often I was left picking up my props.

Soon to be a psychology student myself, I recognized that the potential finding of the study was due in part to the relevance of another social psychology observation, based on a famous event, a decade prior, the Kitty Genovese episode.

This young woman was murdered while reportedly over 30 witnesses, aware of the screaming, did nothing, believing that others would take responsibility and respond. Sensational at the time, the original news report about this case was discredited years later.

Nevertheless, the concept of the "bystander effect," a phenomenon whereby someone is less likely to get involved in helping when others are perceived to be available to help, has been studied in detail in social psychology. In fact, there seemed to be an inverse correlation: the more people around, the less likely they were to respond.

This could partially explain my reaction when years later, having moved from a small town to the Big Apple, I was shocked when onlookers walked over or around a man presumed to be drunk lying on the sidewalk. I could not believe that they simply assumed he was okay.

It seems like Israelis, on the other hand, in general act differently than those from other countries. Hearing a noise, while some may run away from a perceived threat, many often run to help. Seeing ourselves as responsible for each other, we are even more likely to reach out and offer a hand to those around the world whom we've never met.

Fast-forward to 2022. A two-year-old child with sniffles is negative on home COVID antigen testing two days in a row. The parents, still thinking something is wrong, test again, and on day three the little girl tests positive at home. On Friday, the official antigen test, performed by a young man, swabbing very gently, comes back negative. The child could officially go to kindergarten.

The parents, feeling they know better, kept the child home, taking this little princess the next evening to get a PCR test. The parents tell the official tester to not be gentle, and in an only-in-Israel moment, the tester suggests that the parents themselves swab their child.

They do and Sunday morning, this test finally comes back positive. Five days during which, had these parents not been wise, a child would have potentially infected the whole kindergarten and more.

I have heard this scenario repeatedly. Is there any wonder why so many people have been unwell?

What is the commonality in these stories? These past two years of social distancing during corona have shown us who takes responsibility for themselves and others, who responsibly follows directions, who chooses not to, and a whole lot in between.

We have taken our masks up and we have taken our masks down, with some canceling all parties and others throwing caution to the wind and celebrating with thousands of their closest friends. While many of us can be proud of our behavior, spreading kindness and caring toward others, not an insignificant amount have opted to "do it their way" spreading germs and putting my loved ones as well as yours at risk.

COVID has provided an enormous arena in which to assess how much we really do take care of not just ourselves but other people – family, friends, strangers.

How many overwhelmed parents are all too happy to send their not-so-healthy children to school so that the child has a day of education and they have a day at work? How many adults go to work or interact with others mask-less, or with a bit of fever, some sniffles and assume that all is all ok… until it isn't.

I myself tested positive this past week for COVID. I tested because our children were coming for Shabbat, and it was the responsible thing to do. I had such mild symptoms that I could have easily assumed it was my sinuses or allergies.

Compared to how unwell I was after each vaccine for three to four days, I was grateful and rewarded that I was vaccinated and had such a mild case of Omicron. It is obviously very contagious as I have barely been anywhere, am masked outside of the house except when eating and frequently wore a KN95 mask!

When I found out I was positive and had to go into bidud as my husband tested negative, I actually breathed several sighs of relief. Soon, I would be less likely to infect others unknowingly, or feel I was playing dodgeball waiting to be tagged. We all want to avoid the other bugs around.

While bidud offered the reward of far fewer responsibilities toward others, with no one to look after, I was theoretically free to see others again after just five days when I tested negative on days four and five. It seemed nevertheless that the responsible thing to do was to wait seven days, which I did!

As we are given the opportunity to look after not just ourselves, but others, perhaps the message is: put more energy into thinking of and protecting others, now that COVID is edging toward perhaps becoming endemic.

We all know what we should do regarding COVID and keeping others safe. Here are a few other things we all can do in all aspects of our lives:

  • Reach out to help others when we see they are in distress. At the very least we can be in telephone contact and offer to help.

  • Keep our cellphone on silent when in public and move away if we need to speak so we don't bother others. Noise can be very stressful for others.

  • Hold a door open for someone else rather than have it slam in their face.

  • Wait for others to exit an elevator before rushing in.

  • Signal our intentions to other drivers, not rush the intersection and assume we may have the right to go first.

  • Responsibly think about how our actions may impact our environment and take a step to help keep it clean and safe for future generations.

  • Let people know just how much you love and appreciate them.

  • Try and anticipate what someone else might like and surprise them, just for fun.

  • If you have family or friends who have recently bonded over Wordle, create a group and praise others for their great attempts.

  • Take time to volunteer. We are all in this together and it not only feels good to help out but great to put a smile on the face of others.

The next time you see someone drop something, perhaps offer to help.

A version of this article suitable for printing is available here.