By now, news of Yue Yue, a two year old girl in China who was run over by two vehicles and ignored by some 18 passers-by, have gone viral over the internet. Some commentators are calling it a reflection of the cold-heartedness of Chinese society (see here) while some have pointed it out as an example of the unintended (and of course, downright silly) consequences of regulation (see here: the comment made by the blogger’s Chinese contact).

Anyway, my point isn’t about how heartless Chinese people are (which I think is nonsense because there are heartless people everywhere too) or how uncaring people become when society is all about the pursuit of money (another silly assertion in my opinion, after all, if Wall Street is the shining example of that, then you also have Greece which is on the opposite side of the fence too). My point is that this case shouldn’t surprise people because way back in 1964, there was the case of Kitty Genovese.

Who? This from Wiki:

The case of Kitty Genovese is often cited as an example of the “bystander effect”. It is also the case that originally stimulated social psychological research in this area. 28 year-old Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death on March 13, 1964 by a serial rapist and murderer on her way back to her Queens, New York apartment from work at 3am. According to newspaper accounts, the attack lasted for at least a half an hour during which time Genovese screamed and pleaded for help. The murderer attacked Genovese and stabbed her, then fled the scene after attracting the attention of a neighbor. The killer then returned ten minutes later and finished the assault. Newspaper reports after Genovese’s death claimed that 38 witnesses watched the stabbings and failed to intervene or even contact the police until after the attacker fled and Genovese had died.

And the public outcry at that time was:

Many saw the story of Genovese’s murder as an example of the callousness or apathy supposedly prevalent in New York among other larger cities in the United States, or humanity in general. Much of this framing of the event came in reaction to an investigative article in The New York Times written by Martin Gansberg and published on March 27, two weeks after the murder. The article bore the headline “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.” The public view of the story crystallized around a quote from the article, from an unidentified neighbor who saw part of the attack but deliberated, before finally getting another neighbor to call the police, saying “I didn’t want to get involved.”

Sounds familiar? Because that’s exactly how many people are reacting to Yue Yue’s tragic accident. Of course, it’s even more believable because of the video footage (albeit being edited by the news channel) but there’s also the commentator, for those who understand Cantonese, who adding commentary that frames the incident for the listener. Those that picked up the news and the footage from secondary sources would have gotten an interepretation of the commentary too.

This leads me to a second point.

Yue Yue, the young toddler’s death is no doubt tragic but many other deaths through traffic accidents happen every single day. Every day, people in Africa even die from preventable diseases such as malaria, dysentry and hunger. So why is so much emotion invested in the death of one little girl while other deaths deserve little attention? Out of sight may mean out of mind but it doesn’t mean that these things don’t happen.

This is where the spotlight fallacy comes into play. I’m not going to describe what this is but rather point to a link that has a great example of what the fallacy is. Before you click on the link, think of the most plausible answer to the following questions regarding the top 0.1% of wealthy people (i.e. those with at least US$5mil in net worth) in the US are like:

– How old is the average age of these group?

– How many percent of them own a yacht?

– How many percent of them made their own money?

– How many percent of them grew up in Upper Middle class or Wealthy households?

There results may surprise you. (Go here for the excellent post)

PS: If there’s a point to take away from this post, it is that accidents happen. When you see someone that might be in need, please go up to the person instead of wondering why no one is walking past (the bystander effect will do that to most people). Also, if you feel very strongly for Yue Yue, please ask yourself why you aren’t feeling the same for many other people in the world? Just because they don’t make the news does not mean they do not exist.