The Bystander Effect

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The Bystander Effect

I just read a book that described the research behind the Bystander Effect. It is a disturbing phenomenon, indeed, and it has been empirically proven in many studies. The misconception most of us hold is that when someone has been hurt, witnesses will rush to their aid. The sad truth is the more people who witness a person in distress, the less likely it is that any one person within the group of witnesses will help.

The line of thinking in the Bystander Effect is that if one person , alone, sees someone in  trouble, he or she will feel compelled to help. If three or more people are witnessing someone in trouble, each supposes someone else in the group will help and so the individual abdicates his or her personal responsibility to step in. According to David McRaney, author of You are Not So Smart, the Bystander Effect has cost plenty of victims either their physical and/or emotional well-being. In many cases, by-standing has caused victims their lives, while others looked on.

I can personally relate to the Bystander Effect. When I was traveling in Florence, Italy, I was unaccustomed to the uneven cobblestone walkways. Upon exiting my hotel, I tripped just outside the entrance and went down sprawling onto the sidewalk. I hurt my knee and could not immediately get up. The number of pedestrians who literally climbed over me was astounding. Scores of them. Not one person offered help. I don’t remember what hurt worse: the injury to my knee or the shame of being ignored via apathy. I think the latter. Gosh. How do some people sleep at night?

I believe that the Bystander Effect needs to be considered as seriously as leaving the scene of an accident or leaving the scene of a crime. If it was our civic and legal responsibility to help someone in need, perhaps there would be less bullying, less domestic abuse, less hate crimes, less assaults, fewer injuries and fewer victims. Why do you think people abuse or bully other people? …because they can!

I have decided that by-standing someone in distress is officially not part of my behavioral repertoire. If I see someone being mistreated or in danger, I want to act in some way to be of aid to the victim. In my opinion, not only is it the moral choice; it is my honor to be of service to another who may be in distress. Give it some thought. What stand do you take?

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The Gender Revolution

We are in the midst of a powerful sociocultural shift: a Gender Revolution. No longer can we ascribe the same old traits for purposes of defining gender. Historically, our sex was the first thing noted about us and then our early personalities were expected to conform in some predetermined framework to our gender. If we were girls, we were socialized to be “feminine”. If we were boys, we were socialized to be “masculine”.

Many of us suffered in our development simply because, and for a myriad of reasons, we did not fall into any one assumed gender-category. Guess what? We are now encased in a Gender Revolution which demands a redefinition and recognition of what makes a person male or female. And guess what? One is no longer easily distinguishable from the other!

A stay-at-home dad? Households where Mom and Dad ebb and flow between parenting and working roles? Male nurses? A high-powered female CEO who doesn’t want to marry or have children? Society has taken huge leaps since the June Cleaver days. It’s a good time to take a look at and redefine shifting views of men and women’s place in the world.

Attitudes towards gender roles are more varied than ever. Nearly every school of thought, whether it’s business, theology, sociology, marketing, psychology, or family studies, has its view of where men and women “belong” and naturally, these views are not without controversy. The Web is rich with sites that bring to mind an ongoing tug-of-war of “he said, she said”. However, one observation is clear: in today’s world there is way more to gender roles than trite, stereotypical archetypes.

While most of us can agree that change takes time, we have seen gender roles evolve in leaps and bounds. Many people are positively transforming with the idea of being taken care of by a male nurse; they are seeing the value in having their sons play with dolls and they are championing their daughters to become firefighters or serve in the military. There continues to be an ever-strengthening movement where the boundaries between the masculine and feminine are becoming more fluid and easily transmuted.

As far as gender is concerned, it is no longer a case of the tail wagging the dog. We are increasingly less pressured to have to engage in self-limiting activities to prove our gender. I, for one, am relieved and excited about the possibilities for women and men alike.

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So, What’s New in Resolutions?

Here is an interview I gave to the AZ Republic last year. I hope you find it to be helpful. Happy New Year!

1. Why do people make New Year’s resolutions?

People traditionally see this time of year as an opportunity for self-improvement; by starting with a clean slate. They can identify and address their challenges, feeling safe from criticism or judgment from others. They regard the New Year as a symbol for new beginnings and a motivator to enter into some meaningful agreements with oneself.

2. All things considered, is it a good thing for people to do?

Making resolutions is neither good nor bad…it just IS. People make New Year’s Resolutions, in part, as a social ritual, a cultural right-of-passage and an interesting New Year’s Eve Party topic for conversation.

Making New Year’s Resolution is a good practice, but can become self-defeating if you see it as a win-lose activity. Harvard Studies demonstrate that when people take time to think about their goals and write them down, they are more likely to achieve them. Unfortunately, there are also many of us who tend to “hit a wall” not long after we make the self-promises. Even though we have the best of intentions to realize our resolutions, we are unable to stay the path to the finish. Then we have to find a way to emerge out of our shame (consciously or not), only to find ourselves pretty much back where we started….that’s “shrink-speak” for then we experience failure. Once that happens, we don’t feel very good about ourselves and we are at risk to get even more entrenched in our bad habits as a distraction from feeling disappointed. It becomes a vicious cycle.

3. What’s the best way for people to go about trying to make changes in their lives?

Start with the inside job. Work on becoming a resolute person, rather than make resolutions. Consider the value in acquiring the characteristics of determination, faith in oneself, integrity and open-mindedness. Practice using higher thinking to access traits of courage, self-forgiveness and trust. Write these traits down on index cards and look at them every day.

Also, develop your ability to collaborate or work together with others to reach a common goal. Work on a community project in a team setting that will offer you this type of experience. This will serve you well in your own individual growth.

Above all, first ask yourself this: “am I a human-doing or a human-being?” Put your focus on who you want to be, rather than on what you want to do. People who work on a positive self-definition naturally tend to make positive changes and do things well.

4. Why do people have so much trouble making changes, whether they’re little or big?

It is all about the brain and neurogenesis (creation of new neurons). Unproductive behavior patterns are deeply set in the gray matter of the brain as a result of repetitive and high volumes of neuron-firings forging any one particular brain groove deeper and wider. After a while that neural pathway becomes as big as a freeway and starts to take on a life of its own. We call some of these automatic firings “bad habits.”

The key for healthy change is to consciously work to fire your neurons up and left in the brain to a better-outcome destination, while the existing “bad habit groove” starts to shrink and atrophy due to lack of use. That may sound like a challenging road, but it is one that will help you arrive at change that lasts. Remember, you have to first agree to engage in cognitive/thinking activities that will blaze a new neural pathway in your own brain. I believe that is the biological essence of making changes.

5. Is there something in the human condition that seeks improvement?

Yes. I think it is the work of the primitive brain just trying to survive. Darwin called it Survival of the Fittest. In order to become resolute and develop faith in yourself, I think you have to first seek enlightenment, rather than improvement.

6. What do successful people know – or do – that other people don’t?

When successful people want to make a change for the better they:

1. make a resolution they can live with (rather than set an unrealistic goal).
2. brainstorm all the options on how to get there (be open-minded).
3. pick the option for reaching the goal that is do-able (know your limitations).
4. hold onto the desired outcome lightly (keep a balance between the journey and the destination).
5. understand that setbacks are intrinsic component of success (shed your fear of failure).
6. Collaborate with important resources to reach the goal. (It is okay to need help and learn some new things along the way).

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Holiday Stress: Not Very Merry

The holidays, magically coined to be a time of wonder, joy, and togetherness, are actually not-very-merry for many people. Though we generally struggle to manage stress throughout the year, the holidays can intensify underlying issues and painful emotions. The American Psychological Association conducted a study in 2006 and found that while 78% of respondents reported feeling often happy around the holidays, about two-thirds sometimes or often felt stressed and fatigued.

These have been some tough times with the Great Recession. Couple that with higher rates of depression, anxiety and the commonplace reality of the dysfunctional family; the Currier and Ives winter-wonderland fantasy can quickly melt away into a chilly, greyish slush of stress. What can we do when we feel not-very-merry during the holidays? Here are some tips:

  1. Go back to basics. Stay out of the malls and away from online shopping and create something with your own hands. Cards, cookies, cakes, jam, knit items, seedlings that will grow in the spring…these activities will fire your neurons up and left in your brain, moving away from negative emotions and generating a better feeling outcome.
  2. Think about others who are struggling and do some small act of charity. Whether it is dropping off a toy for a child in the hospital, dropping a dollar in the Salvation Army kettle, cooking a meal for someone who is sick. Engage in random acts of kindness and remain anonymous.
  3. Take care of yourself: get exercise, don’t binge on sweets; and most of all, get plenty of sleep.
  4. Give yourself permission to say “No”.  It is okay to be mindful of what you can realistically fit into your schedule and when you need to do nothing but put your feet up and rest.
  5. Be careful with alcohol use. Even recreational use of alcohol is typically increased during this time of year. Don’t forget that alcohol is a depressant and it interrupts restful sleep patterns.
  6. Ask for help and delegate. Be conscious of your limitations and don’t sacrifice your well-being to please everyone else. That’s no fun for you or them.
  7. Know your triggers. If you are spending time with extended family and friends, remember your hot-buttons with those select few who can be trouble-makers. Keep the conversation light and simple and refuse to get drawn into dysfunctional drama.
  8. Remember the phrase “holy day” as the basis of the word holiday and engage in some form of spiritual practice: meditate, pray, count your blessings (even if on one hand), visit a new house of worship, light candles, hike in nature, listen to music, play games together…whatever resonates for you.

As you move through the holiday season, remember its universal theme on a personal level: envision peace in your inner world and practice good will onto yourself. All the best to you and yours!

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Relationships and Attachment

The success of a relationship may very well be based on how you tend to form attachments; a style that became hard-wired into the brain at a very early time of life. If your parents used a particular style of attaching with you in infancy and early childhood, that will contribute to the infrastructure for how you tend to attach as an adult.

People tend to form attachments on a continuum which has avoidant attachment at one extreme; anxious attachment at the other extreme and secure attachment at the midpoint. The anxious connector will sometimes appear to be clingy, mistrusting, and possessive about his/her partner. The avoidant connector will sometimes appear to be indifferent, disinterested and withdrawn. Some people make attachments with others that go from one extreme to the other: “I don’t want you; please don’t leave me!” They overshoot that midpoint of secure attachment and don’t get much joy or comfort from their connections with others. Here is a rather primitive graphic, illustrating the concept:


My mother, God bless her, would worry like crazy about her kids. She was overprotective and overly concerned that some awful danger would befall us. She was anxious in her style of attachment. Guess how I tend to attach?… That’s right; I am an anxious attacher. My husband is more avoidant. Sometimes we go round and round: when I start trying to control him, he keeps to himself and ignores me. When he is acting aloof, I tend to try to get him to engage with me; sometimes by picking a fight with him. Neither of these approaches work very well, so we have to consciously make adjustments.

The age-old rule of “opposites attract” also applies here. We will often find an avoidant attacher paired up with an anxious attacher. They end up unconsciously enabling each other in their respective styles. The more an anxious attacher goes after an avoidant partner, the more avoidant that partner becomes. Conversely, the more withdrawn an avoidant partner becomes, the more anxiously his/her counterpart behaves.

The good news is that if you have some awareness about how you both tend to attach, you can each work on taking a step in toward that midpoint of secure attachment. An anxious attacher will do very well with a word or two of reassurance. An avoidant attacher will be more present when she/he can have a bit of space and private time.

An understanding of the attachment style of both you and your significant other will protect your relationship from unnecessary conflict because if you understand your respective styles, you will take the attaching behavior of your significant other a lot less personally. You can then be present to support each other in stretching out of attachment comfort zones to meet somewhere in the middle with a secure connection.


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