Desmond Searcy, a thirty-seven-year-old home health care aid, is in his Muncie home. The news is on, and reporters are talking about a town in Michigan, slightly more than four hours away from his house in Muncie. The town is Flint. The entire community lacks access to safe water because of contamination. He thinks of his children—his family—and how it could just as easily be them in that situation.
For the next few days, he couldn’t shake the idea of Flint. He couldn’t explain why it bothered him so much—it was just one of those deep-seated feelings that took root inside and wouldn’t go away. By the second day after President Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint, he was growing more and more frustrated. He couldn’t just sit and watch anymore.
Although the Flint community was receiving support, he didn’t think it was enough. He had been praying for the residents of Flint, but he knew that faith alone was not going to solve the problem. He wasn’t sure what a single individual, such as himself, could do to help a community of more than 100,000 people in a situation as severe as this. But he knew he needed to do something.
That something was the Water Drop Relief Project. His goal: Collect one hundred cases of water to personally deliver to a church in Flint that he had previously been involved with.
The day he decided to launch his one-man operation, Desmond sat down at his computer after his kids, Akil and Aalayah, left for school and created a flyer for the project. On one side, it described the project, gave information about the goal, and how people could donate. On the other side, it had a graphic showing a water faucet connected to a globe—one small drop dripping out to join the collection of water in the bucket beneath. The top of the flyer read: “The Water Drop Relief Project. Help aid those affected in Flint.”
After finishing the flyer, he posted it to Facebook, and encouraged people to spread the word. He hoped that his friends, family, and coworkers would be able to increase exposure and donate if they could. He didn’t think it would be a big deal to donate a case or two. Five dollars worth of water isn’t much to some people, but it would mean the world to those in Flint.
Desmond then went out and purchased sixteen cases of water to go toward the project, allowing the project to hit the quarter mark shortly after its conception. Fifteen more cases were waiting for him when he got home, followed by twelve more later that day. Twelve hours into the project, the goal was almost halfway reached.
He didn’t realize initially how a small project, started by one person, could move a much larger group of people into action. He also didn’t realize that by directly asking for their help and giving them a way to do so, he was making it easier for them to want to be involved. He had created a way for other people to feel connected to the issue.
While there’s a complexity driving one’s decision to get involved, people are more likely to help if they have a personal connection, or if they feel like they’re connected to a group. It’s why a place like Facebook can be such a powerful motivating force in the early stages of a movement—it allows people to reach out to those they know and get them interested. That’s why Desmond turned to Facebook to get things off the ground. He hoped his group of people would make his cause their cause.
However, the reality of the situation is that he also just got lucky.
Most of the time, when we try to get our friends to help with something we feel passionate about, we are ignored. Most people can recall, or are at least familiar with, a time when they or someone they know attempted something much the same as what Desmond did. What we usually find out is that our friends just don’t care, or they don’t feel like they need to. The attempt usually flops.
Although it’s not something we really think about, or even try to understand at all, there’s actually a reason this happens.
When faced with an emergency situation, no matter the size or type, any given individual will go through the same process in their minds—whether or not they should help. It’s automatic.
The process that we go through leads to the person who witnessed the emergency, or has knowledge of it, making a critical decision. They will either decide to help, or they will end up convincing themselves that it isn’t something they need to be personally concerned about and that it’s someone else’s problem.
This choice is a result of something called the bystander effect.
Ball State social psychology professor Ron Truelove says, simply put, the bystander effect is the tendency of people to ignore other people who are in trouble, and not really get involved. The way this actually goes down can be different, depending on how many bystanders there are and how they’re interacting with one another.
What it all boils down to, though, is that there are essentially three ways it happens.
If a person is alone when they see something, and think no one else saw what happened, they’re going to feel more responsible for it and will be more likely to help out. That’s what usually happens when a single person acts alone.
But the bystander effect also happens in groups. That’s where problems tend to occur. If someone is in a larger group—with friends, family, strangers—and collectively sees something happen, he or she is less likely to do something. It’s a shared experience; the responsibility of helping gets diffused among all of the bystanders and everyone then waits for someone else to act. Because of course, someone else will do something. The problem is, that’s what everyone is thinking, so, in most cases, nothing ends up being done about the emergency.
Even more problematic, the bystander’s group doesn’t even have to be real or physical. In a community, even if there isn’t anyone around, one is able to convince himself or herself that surely someone else saw what happened, or someone else is already working on solving the problem. This can keep someone from acting.
In psychological studies, it’s a common practice to conduct experiments to examine behavior and reactions to certain types of situations. Truelove mentioned one study aimed at discovering more about the bystander effect. The study consisted of a woman riding her bike along a path, completely alone, just coasting from point A to point B. The people who were conducting the study placed a man along the path, obviously hurt and probably incapacitated, clearly in need of help. They wanted to find out if the woman would stop and help, even though the man was a stranger and she didn’t have any connection to him.
When she reached the man, she looked down, saw him, and then went out of her way to go around him, continuing her journey. She was alone, she was able to help, and she left him alone and did not stop or even attempt to assist him.
There’s more to it than just being alone and being present when something happens. Sometimes, people don’t want to help because they feel like they might get hurt if they intervene. Truelove thinks that this is what happened in the case of the woman on the bicycle.
But sometimes, it comes down to just not feeling any personal connection to the emergency, which Truelove mentioned being a key deciding factor for a single bystander. However, sometimes even personal connections fall through.
That’s the rub. Just because you know somebody—just because you’re friends with somebody—that doesn’t mean they will help you. That’s the reason why people so often stop trying to help: It’s really, really hard.
When Desmond was reaching out to members of his community, attempting to increase the amount of water he could collect and gain more support for the cause, he experienced the failure of a personal connection firsthand.
He was at a barber shop, getting his hair cut, and decided to bring up his project. He had known the man to be a community activist, and thought he would be willing to donate some water. Much to his surprise, the man said he wouldn’t be able to donate.
Desmond was confused at first, and asked what he meant. He couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t be able to donate something as simple and as cheap as a few bottles of water.
He went on to tell Desmond that there were issues in Muncie, their own community, that weren’t being addressed and should be focused on first. Why help another community when their own needed help, too?
Desmond was astounded at the level of disconnect there could be, just because a person wasn’t a part of the same community as the one that needed help. A personal connection, just knowing Desmond, wasn’t enough to move that man to action.
The decision process gets slightly more complex when more people are involved, which is where the second part of the bystander effect comes into play. Because there are multiple people who are aware of the emergency, the responsibility for helping becomes shared amongst them all—theoretically decreasing the amount of responsibility that they each feel individually. The more people there are, the more likely it is that the bystander effect will occur. People don’t naturally tend to think it’s their business to help.
There are ways to overcome this. The easiest is for one person to take charge and delegate responsibilities to other individuals. Specificity makes it personal, which is then more likely to lead to actual assistance. However, people are more likely to help immediately after a crisis than they are after time has passed.
Truelove explained that after the immediacy of an emergency has passed, people will stop feeling as connected to it, because the shock wears off and they won’t feel as urged to help. He used 9/11 as an example. People who didn’t need to be there volunteered at the very beginning. However, as time went on, people felt their help wasn’t needed anymore.
This happened in the case of Flint, which is why Desmond encountered people who didn’t want to help, and also why his efforts to increase help were actually effective. His project ended up being more successful than he could have ever hoped for, and he had the bystander effect to thank for that.
Desmond hit his goal after five days. By the project’s end a week later, he’d collected more than 600 cases of water—six times as much as he had originally hoped for. Because he had so much water, he couldn’t take it all to Flint on his own, and had to reach out to more members of the community to help him get it there. He happened to get into contact with the owner of a moving company, All Star Moving, who was willing to provide transport for the water. Free of charge.
On January 30, 2016, Desmond and his children followed the moving truck with their van. The drive was more than four hours, and by the time they would have reached Flint, it would be late, so they all stayed in hotels. Due to the water crisis, they couldn’t stay in Flint, so they chose cities near the area.
Desmond and his children stayed in Saginaw that night, and the next morning they arrived at Kingdom Life Ministries in Flint at 9 a.m. as planned. As they unloaded the water, Desmond allowed himself a small moment to feel relieved. They had finally delivered all of the water that had been piling up in his house for the past two weeks, completely taking over two rooms. Since it was just him and his two kids, the loss of the rooms didn’t affect their daily life much. They were just glad to be able to help Flint residents.
Desmond was able to overcome the bystander effect, not just by creating the project and acting as a single individual, but also by taking responsibility for helping and delegating responsibility to others.
After Desmond’s initial feeling of relief came happiness. They had been able to contribute in a much larger way than he originally planned for, and he was glad. However, as soon as they finished unloading the water from the truck into the church, Desmond went into planning mode once again. He wanted to turn this success into a series of successes, and now that the first drop was done, he could start on the next with a better idea of how to help.
He thought of one Flint resident in particular as he made this decision—a little boy who had come with his mother to help unload the water at the church. The boy was around seven years old. The entire time he helped out, he looked afraid.
“That’s the face of Flint,” Desmond said, showing a photo he had taken with the child on his phone. “That’s the fear of: ‘I don’t know where my next meal is coming from. I don’t know where my next clean drink of water is coming from. How is this affecting everyone? I’m scared because I hear all of the stuff everyone is talking about.’ That’s the face of a kid who doesn’t understand. Who has been affected by this and doesn’t even understand what exactly it is or how he’s been affected.”
The memory of that child stays with him and drives him in his continued efforts to help.
In the beginning, after word spread about his project, people began to contribute and donate water in much larger amounts than Desmond had thought possible. As it turns out, once people knew specifically what they could do, they were willing to help. Even in aspects other than donations, like figuring out how to get the water to Flint and how to get more publicity, Desmond was delegating responsibilities. He reached out to specific people for specific reasons in order to help in specific ways. He overcame the problem that most often leads to the bystander effect, according to Truelove: Not knowing what to do.
Desmond’s idea to act alone in creating the project, and then gain the support he needed to actually carry it out afterward, shows how the bystander effect can be overcome. It shows how efforts to help society can be successful. It allowed people to feel personally responsible and like they could do something themselves.
When it comes to activism, enacting change, or simply helping one who needs it, one person’s actions can truly be the spark that leads to societal change.