Tuesday, August 16, 2005


Diffusion of responsibility 2

Darley and Latané set out five development stages for helping (individually responsible) behaviour:
  1. You must notice an event is happening
  2. You must interpret the event as one requiring help
  3. You must assume personal responsibility
  4. You must decide what action to take
  5. You must then take action

A decade later, John Bearman, a social scientist, worked with a group of college students to examine whether an individual’s awareness of this “diffusion of responsibility” would enable them to avoid it. He showed selected students films of Darley and Latané’s experiments. Those students who saw the films and learned the stages that led to good citizenship were then nearly twice as likely to offer help/take personal initiative as those without such education. Bearman’s study showed that if the bystander effect is explained to people, they are to some degree inoculated against it.

On many levels, the diffusion of responsibility phenomenon is directly relevant to the Children’s Project. Together with an inherent expectation that it is the responsibility of the state to sort out any problem, it generates a large-scale societal inertia which this project is aiming to break down. Where the issues are also large-scale, such as global warming, there is even more reason for an individual to fear that their contribution is not just inappropriate but irrelevant as well. In offering visitors an experience that challenges a collective opt-out mentality, this project will utilise at least the first four of the five stages to promote positive engagement and individual responsibility, by building the communication process around them.


Monday, August 15, 2005


Diffusion of responsibility 1

The concept of diffusion of responsibility and how to change it is central to the working principles of Massar.

Excerpt from Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People by John Conroy (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2000)

The indifference demonstrated by bystanders in the face of other people's suffering has been widely studied, particularly since the murder of twenty-eight-year-old Kitty Genovese on March 13, 1964, in Queens New York. The murder was witnessed by thirty-eight of the victim's neighbors. During the thirty minutes that it took the killer to complete his act, not one of those thirty-eight people called the police or came to the young woman's aid.

In considering that incident, psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latane wondered if Genovese might have fared better had there been fewer onlookers. The two psychologists then designed a series of experiments to test the hypothesis that the greater the number of people who witness an emergency, the less likely it is that anyone will do anything about it.

In one experiment, New York University students were led, one by one, to small rooms. Each was told that he or she was part of a group of students, all sitting alone in similar rooms, all connected by microphones and headsets. During the course of a discussion about the pressures that students faced, the subjects heard one student--actually a confederate of the experimenters--confess that he was prone to seizures when tense. A few minutes later, subjects heard that same student break down and plead for help. The subjects had been led to believe that no instructor would be monitoring their conversation, so no one hearing the seizure was clearly in charge.

In an article on the experiment published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Darley and Latane reproduced a portion of the victim's speech, the ending of which went as follows: "I-er-if somebody could help me out it would-it would-er-er s-s-sure be-sure be good . . . because-er-there-er-er-a cause I-er-I-uh-I've got a-a one of the-er-sei-er-er-things coming on and-and-and I could reallyer-use some help so if somebody would-er-give me a little h-helpuh-er-er-er-er-er could somebody-er-er-help-er-uh-uh-uh [choking sounds].... I'm gonna die-er-er-I'm ... gonna die-er-help-er-erseizure-er [chokes, then quiet]."

The experiment was designed so that the subjects believed they could not communicate directly with each other-all believed that their microphones were turned off when it was not their turn to speak. Some subjects believed that they were part of a two-person group, and that therefore they alone had heard the young man's seizure. Other subjects believed that one other student had also heard the victim's pleas (a three-person group), and still others thought that four other people were listening when the breakdown occurred (a six-person group). The dependent variable was the time elapsed from the start of the victim's fit until the subject sought help. If six minutes passed after the end of the fit and the subject had not left his or her room, the experimenter entered the room and terminated the session.

Darley and Latane's theory about bystanders proved to be correct. All of the subjects who thought that they alone had heard the victim's seizure tried to get help, most leaving their room before the victim had even finished his speech. Eighty percent of those in the three-person groups sought help, albeit it a little more slowly than those in the two-person groups. But only 62 percent of those in the six-person groups left their room, and they moved at a considerably slower pace: 50 percent of the single bystanders bolted from the room within forty-five seconds of the start of the seizure, by which time none of the people in the six-person groups had yet reached the door. Males and females responded to the emergency with almost exactly the same frequency and speed.

Surprisingly, Darley and Latane did not find that the subjects who stayed in their seats were apathetic or unconcerned; in fact, those who did not respond to the emergency seemed more upset than those who did, often asking the experimenter who entered their rooms if the victim was all right. The two psychologists concluded that non-intervening subjects had not responded because they were mired in a state of indecision and internal conflict: "On the one hand, subjects worried about the guilt and shame they would feel if they did not help the person in distress. On the other hand, they were concerned not to make fools of themselves by overreacting, not to ruin the ongoing experiment by leaving their intercom, and not to destroy the anonymous nature of the situation which the experimenter had earlier stressed as important.... Caught between the two negative alternatives of letting the victim continue to suffer or the costs of rushing in to help, the non-responding bystanders vacillated between them rather than choosing not to respond. This distinction may be academic to the victim, since he got no help in either case, but it is an extremely important one for arriving at an understanding of the causes of bystanders' failures to help."

Darley and Latane concluded by saying that individuals are not "non-interveners" because of some flaw in their personality, but rather because responsibility is diffused. As in the murder of Kitty Genovese, isolated individuals, knowing that others were also aware of the emergency but not knowing how those others were responding, did not attempt to intervene because they did not feel personally responsible.

Darley and Latane's experiments and others inspired by the Genovese murder have led psychologists to conclude that people tend to look to others to define events. Someone who sees something that may be an emergency looks to see if other witnesses are also alarmed. If everyone seems calm or indifferent, the observer often concludes that no emergency is taking place. The group defines the event, and most people follow the spoken and unspoken norms of the group and are unwilling to risk the embarrassment-of overreacting in public.

Furthermore, even if people recognize that they are witnessing an event in which help is called for, they remain unsure who is responsible for providing that help: in a group of strangers there is no captain. Responsibility is therefore diffused, and so is the guilt felt by those who do nothing.

Psychologists are also quick to point out that helping often conflicts with norms or rules of appropriate behavior. A man escorting a woman to a dark place in a park could seem like a cause for alarm, but it is considered perverse and impolite to follow a couple into the bushes. Speaking out for a man unjustly imprisoned sounds noble in the abstract, but when that man is from one of the torturable classes, those who speak for him can expect few pats on the back.

The Chicago cases seem to speak to all of these points. It wasn't a case of five people hearing a seizure and doing nothing or acting slowly; it was a case of millions of people knowing of an emergency and doing nothing. People looked about, saw no great crusade forming, saw protests only from the usual agitators, and assumed there was no cause for alarm. Responsibility was diffused. Citizens offended by torture could easily retreat into the notion that they lived in a just world, that the experts would sort things out, that the press, prosecutors, the judiciary, the legislature, or the police department's Office of Professional Standards would take care of the matter.

Amherst professor Dr. Ervin Staub, perhaps the world's foremost authority on bystanders, has staged his own experiments designed to identify the qualities of those who help during emergencies. In one of those experiments, described in "Helping a Distressed Person: Social, Personality, and Stimulus Determinants" (a chapter in the book Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, edited by L. Berkowitz), male undergraduates filling out a questionnaire became aware of moaning coming from the next room. Some of the students believed they were working on a timed task, while others had been given no directions concerning time. If the student went into the room to discover the source of the noise, he found another male undergraduate complaining that his stomach was "killing him" and that he had run out of pills. If the subject did not investigate the noise, the allegedly ill confederate eventually entered the testing room, mentioned his ailment and his lack of pills, and asked if he could sit on a couch nearby.

Some of those who helped the ailing student were so enthusiastic that, in an attempt to get medicine at a nearby pharmacy, they ran down twelve flights of stairs rather than wait for an elevator, and one student was so fast that the experimenters didn't catch up with him until he actually got to the drugstore. Those helpers, however, were a small minority. In the sample of 122 students, 73 percent did little or nothing.

While other psychologists have had a hard time gathering results that show any correlation between personality and helping behavior, Staub found a strong correlation in this particular experiment. Subjects who valued cleanliness highly were generally less helpful. Staub interpreted this to indicate that college students "who endorse cleanliness may be highly conventional, and conventional values seem to be different from concern for others." Students who ranked ambition highly as a value were less willing to interrupt their work on the assigned task for longer periods of time (Staub believed that the more ambitious may have experienced more conflict in determining a course of action). The subjects whose personality profiles showed a significant prosocial orientation were more likely to help, but only when the circumstances permitted it: the prosocial students who believed they were working on a timed task were less responsive than those who were unconcerned about the passage of time.

Subjects who valued courage highly were more apt to initiate action in response to the moans, those who were taken with adventure and novel experiences seemed more likely to initiate help, and those who valued helpfulness tended to be more responsive when they were asked to collect a prescription.


Sunday, August 07, 2005


The Children's Project

This project is an interesting one, not so much for what it is creating as why it matters. The what consists of a discovery centre in Damascus, and a programme of events and exhibitions touring nationally. Discovery centres are common now around the world - Eureka in the UK and Exploratorium in the US are two well-established examples. They are mainly aimed at children, have a scientific basis, and aim to engage visitors in learning about, for example, the natural, physical and social worlds. Lots of hands-on exhibits, demonstrations and workshops. The emphasis is on active exploration and discovery, and enjoyment.

The why is about enabling change. Syria is in a process of change - towards a market economy, towards greater democracy - and there is recognition amongst the country's leaders that you can't just propel people from old state to new if they aren't prepared for it. Politically, proper democracy needs people not just able to put a cross on a ballot form, but to engage in the political debate, to hold the executive to account, to understand the issues and implications on which they will be voting. Economically, the country needs to build a creative knowledge economy, to develop a more flexible workforce, to encourage initiative and teamwork. Socially, there needs to be a move away from reliance on the state towards individual and community responsibility, a stronger sense of citizenship and civic duty. And technologically, the nation needs to embrace the technological future, with all the risks that it may bring.

So the project is about enabling young people, through exciting hands-on, science-based experiences, to understand and appreciate themselves and the world around them. From this, we hope then to show them how they can play a part in building the future - through the careers they choose, through the contribution they make to the environment, through the choices they can make about they way they live. The project will encourage debate, foster creativity and new ways of thinking, and concentrate not just on building knowledge but on applying that knowledge to the real world. It should be an inspiring and empowering experience, but it will be cumulative and long-term.

The aim is to make the centre and its public programmes accessible to all. This will not be run on a commercial basis. The age group we are targeting is 6 to 16, although of course there will be provision for younger children. We are still at the very early stages of the project, and currently running some pilot activities in various locations around the country to evaluate content and techniques. The aim is to have the project complete and running by 2009 at the latest, so there is much to do.


Friday, August 05, 2005


Majed with flowers at Zabadani


Thursday, August 04, 2005


Soukh, Damascus Posted by Picasa



Saladin's Castle interior Posted by Picasa



Crac Des Chevaliers Posted by Picasa



St Simeon Basilica. Right up in the north of the country. You can see the mountains of Turkey in the distance. The story goes that St Simeon (Simon) found the chatter of visitors to his monastery distracting, so built a pillar to raise him above the hubbub. From this he would preach sermons. However, this unusual behaviour attracted even more people, so even more hubbub, so Simeon built the pillar even higher, until, by some accounts, it was 40' tall, and Simeon spent all his time there, with food being hoisted up in a basket. This holy behaviour led to him being venerated as a saint.

The one thing you won't see today in the ruins of the basilica is the pillar. Knocked over by an earthquake, it suffered from the popularity of the site with visiting pilgrims over centuries, who chipped off little pieces for keepsakes, until the pillar became no more than a stump.



View from Aleppo Citadel Posted by Picasa



Convent at Seidnaya. One of the notable and likeable things about Syria is the variety of faiths practising in the country. The convent at Seidnaya, north of Damscus, houses a Christian order of nuns, but is considered holy by Muslims as well. Various miraculous stories are attached to the convent, and it is believed to have particular powers for women hoping to conceive.



On the road Posted by Picasa



Crac Des Chevaliers Posted by Picasa



Al Azem Palace, Damascus Posted by Picasa



View from Apamea Posted by Picasa


Wednesday, August 03, 2005




Tuesday, August 02, 2005


Damascus 1

Damascus isn't a beautiful city in a conventional sense. Much of its architecture is relatively modern and conforms to an uninspiring concrete vernacular which I suspect owes much to Syria's past ties with Russia. The dominant building colour is grey and dirty, from a combination of dust and pollution. Unfinished building work is everywhere. There's too much litter, traffic and fumes, and too few parks and places to walk.

Despite all that, Damascus has a magical attraction. In the softer light of dawn and dusk the overwhelming grey of the buildings gets washed by pink light. The Old City, split along its length by Straight Street, is a warren of rambling narrow alleys, webbed and festooned with ancient electric cables, offering glimpses into the courtyards round which the traditional Damascus houses were built. Some of the grander houses have been converted into restaurants where one can see the rich interiors restored. The scents of the spice markets fill the nostrils. In the Old City one can see a traditional emphasis on the insides of houses, with the outsides deliberately modest, which may explain in some part why modern buildings seem designed with so little care. In the Old City too can be seen a beautiful design language of pattern, proportion and colour which also seems to be absent from today's equivalents.

The city is overlooked by the face of Mount Qassioun, itself topped with an unsightly array of radio masts. In the evenings this is a place of cool breezes and so hundreds of families drive up here with a picnic, to meet friends, or to eat at one of the many establishments which run along the hillside. And to look at the view, because as the sun goes down the city becomes a shimmering carpet of lights. It's one of the things to show guests, so I've seen it now many times, but it never loses its magic.

The pleasant thing about Damascus compared, say, to the Gulf, is that there is street life, possibly too much of it even. It's teeming with people on foot, shopping, delivering, eating, going to college, wandering, hanging about. It's teeming too with a splendid mix of ancient and modern cars, horse-drawn carts, buzzing mini-trucks, cyclists who seem unable to steer straight, as well as the manic yellow taxis and white service cars. All of this co-exists only by much hooting of horns, which is the leitmotif of Damascus. People come out to eat late, usually after 10pm, and around many restaurants the air fills with the scent from nargilehs, the water-pipes that are smoked here as an accompaniment to the meal.

Things to do in Damascus in the evening are not plentiful (few cinemas, for example), so people gather to eat, drink or just wander. It's a great social gathering, where people just want to enjoy themselves. Because relatively little alcohol is consumed, there is none of the noise and aggro you find late at night in many other cities. There's a lot of tradional Arabic food on offer, usually very good, but plenty of alternatives, especially if you like pizza. I've heard about, but not yet found, a sushi restaurant here - hmm, not sure. As I've said elsewhere, it's a very relaxed atmosphere.


Monday, August 01, 2005


Some general stuff

Isn't it dangerous? I'm asked that by just about anyone I meet in the UK when they find I'm working in Syria. The picture in their minds is straight-from-TV Middle East - young men on the back of pick-up trucks firing machine guns into the air; bleak hostile desert; Westerners hated and at risk; burnt-out buildings; no alcohol; and an oppressive military state. The reality is very different, and anyone with a half-open mind should come and see for themselves. The people here are quite extraordinarily welcoming and kind. There is no hassle, instead a feeling of great safety, even walking through Damascus late at night. Nowhere in the world can be said to be safe right now, but at a personal level I feel as safe and relaxed in Syria as I have anywhere. If I am at risk, it's probably from a Syrian driver, of which more in another post.

As people come out to work on the project, their response is always the same: it's quite different from what they expected. Women from the UK often visit with feelings of caution about what they should and shouldn't wear and how they will be treated, and are surprised by how varied and tolerant life here is. Yes, you will see fully-covered women here, and many others wear headscarves, but many others don't, and jeans and t-shirts are normal. There's a great readiness to live and let live that takes some getting used to, but is a huge plus. Even in the soukhs, the attitude is easy - compared to some markets round the world with the constant "you buy, you buy" pressure, here it's much more of a social affair, where walking away empty-handed after a half hour's conversation and a cup of tea is not an issue. Eating out is easy, wine and beer are available in many places. Life, in fact, is very pleasant.

There certainly are men with machine guns. They sit or stand outside embassy buildings or diplomatic residences, some in uniform, some in suits. I noticed it for a day or two when I first arrived, now I take it for granted. There are lots of policemen as well, mainly on traffic duty where they act as some minute sort of reinforcement to the traffic lights, which otherwise are totally ignored. None of this is threatening; ordinary Syrians blithely pay no attention and just do what they want, and very soon you find yourself doing the same.

Time for work. More to come.



Aleppo citadel

Aleppo citadel is rather like Edinburgh castle - it dominates the city. Inside the walls much has been destroyed but enough remains to give a vivid sense of what like inside would have been like.




Apamea is one of my favourite places. The ruined Roman colonnade (the photo above shows one end) marches for 1.5 kilometres across the hilltop. Just after we started walking its length it poured with rain and we got completely soaked and very chilled. At the other end is a little cafe where we got coffee and hot fresh-baked bread. This was May, and the countryside was vivid green.




Palmyra is one of Syria's best-known Roman sites and it is extraordinary. Not only are there extensive Roman ruins. but the tower tombs (above) and the medieval citadel (left) overlooking the whole site.



Driving - Part 1

Driving in Syria - no, road behaviour in Syria - is unlike anything I have ever experienced. I've been here eight months, and I'm still rendered speechless every day by what people do. The driving test, I'm told, takes five minutes and is just about the mechanics of starting, steering, stopping. There's nothing at all about right of way, lane discipline, speed limits, braking distance and stuff like that. The highway code, in other words, just doesn't exist. I can believe it completely. I have seen cars driving the wrong way along motorways, the wrong way round roundabouts, the wrong way along one-way streets. Cars drive with no rear lights working (hey, the driver behind has headlights, yes?) and no headlights (see last comment). Drivers turn without indicating, or just as often while indicating to turn the other way. Approaching a motorway slip road you can expect the driver in the slip lane to be going straight on, while the driver in the outside lane will cut across two lanes of traffic at the least minute to make the turn. If he's too late, he will reverse back to the turning against the oncoming traffic. If a highway code were ever published, a section might look like this:

All vehicles drive on the right. You may drive on the left side of the road straight at oncoming traffic only in the following circumstances:
  • You are arguing with your passenger, or lighting a cigarette
  • You are overtaking on a blind corner
  • The right side of the road is too bumpy
  • You are turning left into a main road and will be turning left again in less that 500 metres. In this case it makes sense to use the shorter distance
  • You are a taxi driver.

You have right of way over any other traffic when:

Cars share the roads with pedestrians, who have to be there because the pavements are full of parked cars, fruit stalls and security guard stations. That said, pedestrians will: cross streets without looking, stroll across motorways, and generally behave witlessly, much like drivers without cars. Added to all this are the taxis, who believe they own the streets anyway, and the service cars (little microbuses, known locally as "white rats") which lurch in and out of traffic as they stop to drop off and pick up passengers, usually at the most awkward place, and you have a recipe for chaos.

Which is what it is. It works, just, but it looks like one of those TV programmes of police footage of people doing daft things behind the wheel. There's more than enough for a complete programme in a single day of driving here.



Directions, addresses

No-one uses street names here, and no-one uses maps. So for someone coming from a land of A to Z city plans and postcodes, my attempts to tell people where the office was caused complete confusion. At first I put this down to my inability to pronounce the street name, which I had found in a tourist map of Damascus. I soon found that nobody knew the street name however I pronounced it. Faxing location maps to people was no help either. Eventually, I fell into the local pattern. “Take the road opposite the Tala Tower, up the hill, fourth on the right at the corner with the Canadian Ambassador's residence on it, the office is on the left five houses along, above a butcher’s shop, second floor.” It hasn’t appeared on the office stationery in that form yet, but many businesses here do add “beside the Cham Palace Hotel” or “opposite the French Embassy” in advertisements or on business cards. It’s the only way.

All this does not help in telling taxi drivers where to go. My technique is to memorise the names of a dozen useful landmarks and then mime directions from there. Apparently, there was a scheme to create a postcode system some years back. The planners ended up with a code thirteen digits long, and the scheme was quietly dropped.


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