When Social Distancing Clashes With Human Decency

A Catch-22 in the Coronavirus Crisis

A little girl fell off her bicycle a few yards ahead of me as I strolled along a path in an atypically empty park near my house. As she began to cry, I immediately rushed over to help her up. She was uninjured, and as she rode away, I realized I had just breached the government’s social distancing guidelines.

Several questions bounced around in my mind. In the midst of the worst global plague in a century, did I just put her at risk by coming to her aid? For that matter, did I just endanger myself? What if she’d been badly injured and I had stayed with her for more than a minute?

Yep, gestures that were once regarded as noble and kind suddenly seem almost reckless. Health officials’ call to keep at least six feet apart from each other to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus have upended the definition of thoughtfulness.

For most of us, it’s impossible to ignore someone in need when we’re the only person available. But believe me, I’m no super altruist. I live in a densely populated city, and I’m as susceptible to the proverbial bystander effect as anyone else.

Social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané demonstrated the bystander phenomenon in a series of experiments they conducted after the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese. In accounts now believed to be significantly apocryphal, neighbors ignored Genovese’s screams for help as she was stabbed to death outside of her apartment in Queens. Through their subsequent research, Darley and Latané found what they described as a human tendency toward diffusion of responsibility in the presence of others — we assume someone else will take the appropriate action.

Over the decades, however, research has shown considerable nuance and variability in bystander behavior. Individuals do, in many instances, emerge from the horde to help. Just watch ABC’s hidden camera show What Would You Do? to see how situational factors influence people’s willingness to step up. And in life-and-death situations, heroes do emerge. An individual trained to deliver CPR or the Heimlich maneuver jumps to action to save a heart attack victim lying unconscious on the sidewalk or a customer choking in a restaurant.

What’s more, modern technology makes it easier for us to engage in some civic responsibility, albeit passively. While witnesses may do nothing more than gawk at someone’s xenophobic tirade toward an immigrant in a convenience store, they have no qualms about recording the incident on a smartphone and sharing it on social media to publicly shame the aggressor.

More times than I’d like to admit, I’ve left the selflessness up to someone else in the crowd. I’ve avoided shoveling snow from an elderly neighbor’s driveway, convincing myself the younger guy next door is better able to do it. I’ve walked past a blind man trying to find the elevator, telling myself he’s used to finding his way around and doesn’t need my help. I’ve ignored tourists who look lost as their traversing through town.

I’ve also rushed into the street to help a victim in a traffic accident on an isolated street. I once chased off a mugger trying to grab a woman’s purse in front of my house. I’d be a jerk not to. I was the only person there.

As we’re pressed to minimize errands and to keep our distance, streets, parks, and parking lots are getting desolate. We’re more likely to be the only person available when a child falls from a bicycle, an elderly woman faints and hits her head on the sidewalk, or a neighbor goes into anaphylactic shock from a bee sting. We won’t have the luxury of hiding in the horde. We may feel compelled, even obligated, to rupture the physical boundaries we’re now supposed to respect.

But if we can shed the coronavirus without even knowing we’re carrying it, does a person’s urgent need outweigh the risk of making them sick by coming to their aid? What is the line between social distancing and dereliction?

I imagine I’ll face this dilemma a lot over the coming weeks, or even months. I know we’re all in this together, and right now that means staying apart. But as we walk outside for exercise or visit those essential businesses that are permitted to stay open, we may see urgency throwing a wrench of complexity into the six-feet rule.

I write about the science of the human mind and behavior, with a sprinkle of humor.

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