Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Paradox of the Crowd

In 1964, a young woman from Queens named Kitty Genovese was stabbed and killed while 38 neighbours watched from their windows.

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell mentions a study done by Bibb Latane and John Darley which found that the more eyewitnesses to an emergency, whether medical, fire or criminal, the less likely any one of them is to act. The reason is either that someone assumes someone else will do something, or the presence of so many witnesses has a numbing effect. People assume it isn't a significant problem because no one else is doing something.

I have long been baffled by charity organizations that do little more than "raise awareness." Tonight, as I was reading, I realized why. Is it possible that raising awareness can actually have the opposite of the intended effect? If I pass on a social issue to someone else, does that in effect reduce my passion to actually do something? I could easily get to thinking "well, I've told someone... that's something." But in reality, even if that someone tells someone else, the end result will be a lot of people knowing and assuming someone else is doing something.

I just finished reading The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs. It is a great book in many respects, but the one part that frustrated me was that there were no suggested actions. In fact, Sachs makes the case that extreme poverty could be ended by taking back the tax cuts from the superrich. Well, whoop-di-do. That's not really something I can do.

If you've followed me thus far, I am issuing a challenge. Next time you are faced with a significant issue, be it poverty, declining donations to charitable organizations, or even an emergency... DO SOMETHING! Don't just assume that someone else will.

This week I had the opportunity to hear Craig Kielburger speak. He founded Free the Children when he was 12 years old. He did it because he saw a problem and wanted to do something. At the age of 25, he has now been awarded several honorary doctoral degrees and a number of other impressive awards, including the Order of Canada. Isn't that impressive? But all he did was do something when he saw a need, rather than assume someone else would.

It is those who do something who make history.

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