Pasig River and the bystander effect

When thinking of the very much polluted and technically dead Pasig River, one might be reminded of what is known as the “bystander apathy effect” or simply, the bystander effect. Consider the following excerpts from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2002, Vol. 83, No. 4:

“The bystander apathy effect generally regarded as a well-established empirical phenomenon in social psychology (e.g., Darley & Latane, 1968; Latane & Darley, 1968; Latane & Nida, 1981). A person who faces a situation of another person in distress but does so with the knowledge that others are also present and available to respond is slower and less likely to respond to the person in distress than is a person who knows that he or she is the only one who is aware of the distress.”

“The classic bystander intervention studies (e.g., Clark & Word, 1974; Darley, Teger, & Lewis, 1973; Latane, 1970; Latane & Darley, 1968, 1970) have consistently shown that the presence of others inhibits helping behavior. However, current theoretical accounts stipulate that the immediate or imagined presence of others exerts its influence on helping because these others are involved in the situation at hand. In fact, if individuals know that immediate or imagined others cannot possibly help, then bystander apathy will not occur; individuals will behave as if alone (Bickman, 1972; Korte, 1971).” (emphasis supplied)

Consider further another excerpt, this time from a research article called The bystander effect and social control behavior: the effect of the presence of others on people’s reactions to norm violations, from the European Journal of Social Psychology, 2002, Vol. 32, Issue 6. Authors Chekroun and Brauer wrote this abstract:

“Observers of deviant social behavior sometimes communicate disapproval directly or indirectly to the perpetrator of a deviant act. This reaction has been termed ‘social control’. Three field studies were conducted to explore the influence of the number of bystander-observers on the likelihood of social control. We predicted that the presence of others would inhibit people’s tendency to communicate their disapproval to the deviant but only if personal implication was low. In the first study, we measured participants’ perceptions of two fictive situations, one in which a deviant draws graffiti in an elevator of a shopping center and one in which a deviant litters in a small neighborhood park by throwing a plastic bottle in the bushes. As expected, participants considered both behaviors to be equally counternormative but felt personally more implicated by the littering behavior in the park. In Studies 2 and 3, the two situations were enacted with confederates of the experimenter. Naïve bystanders served as participants, and social control was the primary dependent variable. Consistent with our hypothesis, we found evidence for a bystander effect in the low personal implication situation (‘graffiti in the elevator’) but not in the high personal implication situation (‘littering in park’). These results make clear that perceived personal implication moderates the extent to which people are inhibited by the presence of others when they decide whether they should exert social control or not.” (emphases supplied)

Notice that there are parallels that can be drawn from these statements describing the mechanics of the bystander effect and why the Pasig River is in its current state. The Pasig River is in distress, while various elements that perpetuate the pollution of the river cause such distress, and virtually the entire country, save for a few, act out the bystander apathy effect.

Despite the growing awareness of more Filipinos of the present unfortunate state of the Pasig River, civil society and non-government organizations, clearly few in number, could only do so much. There are already so many Pinoys who know of the problem, but hardly anybody truly acts on it with a real solution that addresses primary causes such as the pollution due to poor waste disposal practices by Metro Manila residents and transients alike, the dumping of commercial rubbish and industrial refuse onto drainage ducts that lead to the Pasig River if not directly on it, the progressively increasing garbage generated by population growth that is arguably already out of control, and Filipino society’s actual indifference towards such problem that could always be easily dismissed as someone else’s.

Marikina and Subic have already taken the opportunity to literally clean up their act and become distinguishably tidier and disciplined to stay tidier than their geographical neighbors; the rest of the Philippines probably has to go through several Ondoys to realize that they can’t keep passing the buck forever.

Only a strict discipline of no littering, an economy that frees more Filipinos from being limited to making tiny purchases that create extraordinarily greater quantities of packaging waste, a government that imposes severe sanctions on businesses that profit from irresponsible waste disposal practices, a population growth rate returned to a more manageable level, and real collective concern that mimics the way Pinoys have abhorred wangwangs, might lead the way to making Pasig River’s revival a real possibility for coming generations.

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