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Humankind Read-Along Part 5: The Stories We Told After Auschwitz

Humankind by Rutger Bregman with clipboard paper and pens

Hello and happy Friday! After reading to page 194 In Humankind by Rutger Bregman, I’m responding to the following question:

Discuss Bregman’s observations of Kitty Genovese’s story and what it teaches us. How do you feel at the end of this section? What have you learned?

This section of Humankind, entitled “After Auschwitz” could have been called Mythbusters: Social Psychology Edition. With the end of WWII psychologists birthed the field of social psychology, which studies how our human interactions impact mental processes and behavior. Social psychologists wanted to know how people could allow something like the Holocaust to happen. Were there psychological phenomena that could explain the Nazis that ran the concentration camps, the soldiers who obeyed Hitler’s orders, and the civilians who enabled it all without resistance? 

Bregman examines three bread-and-butter experiments in the field of social psychology—experiments intended to show how easily people choose to do harm and enable harm by others—and tears them apart. 

In all the psychology research that Bregman describes, the Stanford Prison Experiment, the Robbers Cave Experiment, and the Milgram Shock Experiment, I am reminded that what people already believe influences how they interpret data. The methods of each of these experiments prove to be flawed, invalidating the conclusions drawn from them. Moreover the conclusions reveal the social paradigm of the era and the stories that were already being told as truth rather than scientific discoveries. 

These experiments told stories that paint another depiction of veneer theory. Tweak the environment and we morph into sadistic prison guards. Friendly competition quickly turns bitter and violent. People blindly obey an authority figure no matter how it violates someone else. Just underneath the veneer of civilization is the real human: feeble-minded, quick-tempered, and aggressive. 

The stories we tell ourselves impact how we see ourselves and how we subsequently behave. After the Holocaust we wanted a story that would absolve us. If it’s in our nature, if we are hardwired for evil, then can we be blamed for its surfacing? After reading this section, explaining bad behavior as a part of human nature sounds like a poor excuse. The stories of our evil nature that stem from these experiments are not supported by the data. 

In the final chapter of this section, Bregman tells two versions of the story of Kitty Genovese’s murder on March 13th, 1964. Version one first appeared in the New York Times. Around 3am as Kitty walked from her car to her apartment building, a man stabbed her. She screamed out. He stabbed a second time. She cried out again. She made it into her apartment building, but the attacker followed her and stabbed her over and over. In the meantime her cries woke people up—38 in all saw or heard her—but nobody did anything to help. Kitty died in the stairwell. 

This story led psychologists to research and define the bystander effect: if a person encounters a situation in which someone else needs help, the presence of other bystanders makes that person less likely to help. The person might not want to get involved, and they expect someone else to take on the responsibility, letting them off the hook. 

Bregman writes that while current research shows that the bystander effect indeed exists, it also shows something less well-known. The inverse bystander effect is a phenomenon in which additional bystanders lead to more helping rather than less, particularly if the situation is a life-threatening emergency and if the bystanders can communicate with one another. 

Bregman then rewrites Kitty’s story based on research done ten years later by an amateur historian who moved into Kitty’s old building named Joseph De May. Rather than doing nothing, neighbors did call the police, but the police took too long to get there. While the New York Times article had listed the number of passive witnesses at 38, that’s simply the number of neighbors police questioned, most of whom didn’t even wake up when Kitty screamed, and didn’t know about her murder until the next day. And while Kitty lay bleeding in the stairwell, one of her neighbor friends did find her and held her during the last moments of her life. The story that birthed the bystander effect in no way illustrates the bystander effect once revised to reflect the truth. 

Bregman’s observations on Kitty Genovese reiterate the power of story to impact how we behave. If I think typical human behavior reflects the bystander effect, I won’t feel like it’s wrong to avoid intervening on another person’s behalf. I’ll think that I’m just being a normal human. The original version of Kitty’s story tells me it’s how most people would respond. If I hear the second version instead, I would understand the importance of acting quickly in such a situation. I would know that even if one person is already choosing to get involved, more help might be needed. Having a different story in my head leads me to think and behave differently. 

Because Kitty’s story was first told by a journalist, I’m reminded of journalists’ power in particular to curate our reality. They select the topics, sources and facts to write about. Unlike scientists, their writing does not undergo the rigor of peer review to suss out bias and fraud. (And even though scientists’ work is vetted prior to publication, true impartiality is impossible and difficult to identifyif everyone shares the same false beliefs about the world.) Furthermore, in today’s reality we fight fake news. We must be skeptical and demand evidence before belief sets in. While we might not be the ones who generate the stories, we can be empowered to choose carefully which stories reside inside of us and shape who we become. 

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree? When have you realized the power of a story to shape your own decisions? Share your thoughts in the comments!

On Monday after reading to page 239, I’ll address the following question: 

On page 233, Bregman explains that myths were and are key to incentivizing the human race to cooperate: “Religions, states, companies, nations - all of them really only exist in our minds, in the narratives our leaders and we ourselves tell.” Money is also a fiction “but it’s enforced by the threat of very real violence” (page 236). Can you think of any other myths or fictions that we adhere to day-to-day? And what’s your understanding of “shame” and how it figures in society?



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