Picture from Trey Ratcliff.
The Foshan double hit-and-run has led to a great deal of soul-searching and introspection within Chinese society, and understandably so. By Shanghaiist’s own (completely unscientific) anecdotal testing, Chinese citizens themselves seem convinced that their countrymen are more prone to the Genovese syndrome, or the bystander effect, than people of any other country. This refers to the social psychological phenomenon by which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim in a crisis situation when others are present.
While this may be a very tempting argument, many psychologists are saying that the behaviour we witnessed in that horrendous video is a lot more universal, and a lot less cultural than we think it is. Psychologist Erik Fisher, in an interview with CNN (see video below), warns against being too quick to judge against the bystanders who did nothing because “until you’re in that situation yourself, you just can’t understand it”.
Another psychologist, Jeremy Gaies, speaking to ABC, sees no inherent callousness in China. “It’s a problem within the Human Race,” he says. “It has something to do with what we call a diffusion of responsibility. The more people who are available, the less responsibility each individual seems to take for providing help to an individual in distress.”
Evan Osnos sums up the shorthand explanations that have frequently been given for the stark examples of bystander ambivalence we’ve seen in China: “One, the speed of economic transformation and competition has unhinged people from their moral foundations; and, two, the end of political ideology as a meaningful force in people’s lives has opened a spiritual vacuum—a ‘crisis of faith’ as it is known in Chinese.”
But will a belief in God fill up this so-called “spiritual vacuum” and make more Good Samaritans out of us? Over at Sinostand, Eric Fish (who describes himself as a devout atheist) puts forth the interesting explanation that it isn’t a belief in God, per se, but a belief in hell, that will make us all slightly better people:
The idea of hell as a means to keep people honest might be pretty intuitive (if not a bit Machiavellian) but University of British Colombia psychologist Ara Norenzayan published a study entitled Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior. He gave subjects a math test they could easily cheat on and those who believed in a vengeful god typically chose not to cheat. “Fear of supernatural punishment may serve as a deterrent to counter-normative behavior, even in anonymous situations free from human social monitoring,” the study said.
Studies by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and Harvard have also separately found a correlation between belief in hell and lower levels of corruption and higher economic growth.
According to the Boston Globe, “[Harvard researchers Barro and McCleary ] collected data from 59 countries where a majority of the population followed one of the four major religions, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism.[…] Their results show a strong correlation between economic growth and certain shifts in beliefs, though only in developing countries. Most strikingly, if belief in hell jumps up sharply while actual church attendance stays flat, it correlates with economic growth. Belief in heaven also has a similar effect, though less pronounced. Mere belief in God has no effect one way or the other.”
“The expectation that there is a cultural belief in hell or perpetual and eternal punishment for wrongdoing will act as a disincentive to wrongdoing,” Eileen Lindner, deputy general secretary of the U.S. National Council of Churches, told USA Today.
Sinostand then goes on to describe how certain quarters in the Chinese government seem to be opening their eyes to the idea that increased religiosity can help extend the longevity of their time in power. With the demise of hardcore Maoism as the opiate of the masses, it sure makes sense for the powers that be to give the people a substitute that will help make governing easier. Then again, we are already living in the midst of the greatest revival of religion in modern day China and it sure doesn’t seem to be helping.
There may be an easy shortcut to all of this without any of the hocus pocus. Where belief in punishment in the next life has failed, belief in punishment in this life may succeed. Promoting a belief in the omnipresence of the CCTV camera is, after all, much easier than promoting a belief in God. If people can’t be led to believe God is watching them in the middle of a crime scene, then maybe all they’ll need to know is: the CCTV camera is.
UPDATE: Chen Xianmei commended while murmurs abound she’s out to get famous
Previously on Shanghaiist
1. Watch: Toddler run over by two vehicles, ignored by all but one trash collector
2. Foshan toddler passes away [UPDATE: Toddler still alive]
3. Foshan toddler Yueyue still under intensive care
4. Meet: Chen Xianmei, the trash collector who came to the rescue of Foshan toddler Yueyue
5. Adam Minter: Chen Xianmei’s a “scrap peddler” not “trash collector”