At Shanghai's Pudong airport recently, a 23-year-old Chinese man stabbed his mother nine times and left her to die. As she lay bleeding, all the Chinese onlookers stood watching while only a single foreigner went to her aid.
This incident was a spin on a recurring story in China: Someone lies injured, yet Chinese are unwilling to step up and help. Like in previous instances, people were quick to label it an example of the Peng Yu effect. This refers to a 2006 incident when an elderly Nanjing woman fell and later successfully sued the man who helped her, Peng Yu, for 45,000 yuan ($6,900) claiming that he pushed her down.
So now in situations where nobody helps, it's portrayed that Chinese are more worried about legal liability than helping a fellow person in need. It gives a pretty grim commentary on the state of Chinese society.
But it only demonstrates troubling facets of human psychology that are hardly unique to China.
One of the most famous examples of unhelpful onlookers was in 1964 when a woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death over a 30-minute period near her New York apartment. Accounts vary, but it was believed at least a dozen people saw or heard the attack, yet nobody called the police until the killer was gone and it was too late to save Genovese.
The case led to a theory called the "bystander effect." Columbia University researchers tested the theory on unwitting subjects and found that the more people there are present in an emergency situation, the less likely it is any individual will feel the need to act. Everyone's responsibility diminishes with the crowd.
This is further compounded by people's tendency to look to their peers for cues on what to do in an uncertain situation. When they see others also doing nothing, it gives social proof that no action is needed.
Because of China's massive population, these effects are likely almost anywhere in the country, simply because locations without a large number of bystanders are few and far between.
But the Shanghai airport incident seemed to prove the Peng Yu theory since the Chinese onlookers remained passive while the lone helpful bystander was a foreigner who presumably didn't know of Peng Yu.
This is actually a better demonstration of the confirmation bias. Nearly half of the airport's daily passengers are international travelers, so the likelihood of a foreigner being the first to reach the victim was fairly high. But if it had been a Chinese person, the story would have ended with the stabbing. Nobody would be reporting the compassionate Chinese who contradicted the idea that people are unwilling to help in China.
In fact, try to remember the last time there was a news report specifically about anyone going to the aid of an injured person.
Thousands of trivial incidents like that must happen every day in China, but only the instances where nobody helps get any news coverage. Thus, most see only the examples that confirm the idea of unhelpful Chinese and none that disprove it. It makes it quite natural to overestimate how far-reaching the phenomenon is.
What about the Hubei University students who ran to the aid of two children drowning in a river in 2009? Those students didn't worry about legal concerns or even their own safety. Three of them drowned during their heroic rescue.
There are indeed too many situations in China, and anywhere else, where nobody helps though. During social psychologists' studies on the issue, they've found social proof and the bystander effect to be the biggest culprits, but they've also found dozens of other less frequent personal reasons, including fears of physical harm, being unqualified, and yes, legal liability.
The Peng Yu effect undoubtedly contributes to some people's reluctance to help, but the idea that it's a pervasive social epidemic is greatly exaggerated. It gives a simple explanation to a complex problem so it's not surprising that it's so often cited. For the media, it's a good story that keeps on giving, but the image it gives of greedy Chinese just isn't fair.
The author is a master's candidate of Global Business Journalism at Tsinghua University. His blog: sinostand.com. email@example.com