The Bystander Effect: If You See Something, Say Something

I recently read Cockpit Confidential, a book by Patrick Smith which has the following subtitle: “Everything You Need To Know About Air Travel. Questions, Answers & Reflections”. Mr. Smith is not only a well known blogger and author, but is also an actual airline pilot, which makes his writing on air travel all the more interesting. The book covers a number of topics related to air travel in sort of an FAQ format.

The book is a NY Times Bestseller, and covers a lot of ground (sky?) about airlines, aircraft, airports and the whole air travel experience both in the US and abroad, but there are a few topics which get Mr. Smith hot under his uniform collar. One of those topics is his view that much of what we endure in the name of airport security is more about theatre than actual security. I had downloaded the book to my iPad and was reading the section about airport security one evening when I came upon this sentence:

“This brings us to a third fundamental flaw in our approach, whereby we refuse to acknowledged that the real job of keeping terrorists away from planes is not the job of airport screeners in the first place.”

Did you catch that? Did you see the typo? If not, go back and re-read the sentence slowly.

The problem, of course, that the word “acknowledged” is improperly written in the past tense. Anyone who writes knows how easy it is for this to happen in the first place, and even that it might escape proof-reading. Here was my thought process after I read the sentence:

• Did I catch that? Is that right?  (I re-read it)
• Wow. A typo. I’m sure they already know about this since, if the book is a NY Times Bestseller, then probably thousands of people have read that sentence…
• But…I’m only reading one electronic version. Maybe this exists only in this electronic version, but not the hard-copy edition.
• And since it’s electronic, it would be easy to change. Yet the typo remains, so I’ll bet nobody knows about it.

I reached out directly to Mr. Smith, and I’ll not relate the back-and-forth we had via email since I don’t have his permission to do so, but he struck me as someone I’d like to have a beer with.  He indicated that:
• He didn’t know about the typo, but saw that it was, in fact, a typo.
• He was unhappy, and would forward the information to his publisher.

If that was the sum and substance of the story, I’d not even bother to relate it here. It was something that came up that night in a phone conversation I had with one of my brilliant and awesome daughters. We were sharing the events of our day when I mentioned the typo story to her, and she said “I view that as the bystander effect at work”.

This got me interested in the bystander effect, and as I read up on it, it made sense. You don’t need to know much about the bystander effect to recognize what the term refers to, namely the impulse people have to NOT help when they believe an event has been witnessed by many other bystanders, under the assumption that one of those other bystanders will address the issue.  The irony is that the more bystanders you perceive there to be, the less likely you are to help.  From the Wikipedia entry:

In other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help.

I have a hard time believing that among the many, many people who read that section, I was the first and only person to recognize the innocent typo. But due to the bystander effect, I appear to have been the first person to send the author an email.

Could the bystander effect be at play in your organization?  Here are some questions to think about:
• Are people on your team celebrated for catching mistakes?
• Are you defensive when others catch a “typo” in your work (either actual or metaphorical)?
• When you see something, do you say something? Are you more inclined to say something if the typo came from a junior employee rather than a senior exec but remain silent if it’s the other way around?

Some things to chew on for sure. If you see something, say something.  Good luck!

(Did you see any typos in this post? If so, let me know!)

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