As one of the killers of James Bulger is scheduled for release from prison, Psychologists argue the tragedy could easily occur again, because little has changed. Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham

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As one of the killers of James Bulger is scheduled for release from prison, Psychologists argue the tragedy could easily occur again, because little has changed.


Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham


20130414_201731_LLSIt is widely reported that Jon Venables, one of the two perpetrators originally found guilty for the killing of James Bulger, could be about to be released from prison. Venables had previously been paroled, but was returned to jail for accessing child pornography.


James’s mother Denise Fergus is reported on the BBC News website, to have tweeted in response: “Venables is getting released. Just don’t believe what I’ve got to go through again.”


While it is not clear when Venables will be released, the latest development will undoubtedly rekindle harrowing memories of how the toddler was beaten with bricks and iron bars, his body then left on a railway line.


But Professor Mark Levine, a psychologist based at Exeter University has published an in-depth psychological analysis of the James Bulger trial, predicting similar terrible events could easily recur, even now.


Mark Levine analysed the statements of the 38 witnesses called to the trial, who saw or met James Bulger on the day of his murder, yet who did nothing to intervene, despite the fact the toddler was obviously injured, and in distress.


Why don’t bystanders assist victims? Indeed psychologists have found the more bystanders there are, the less likely is any victim to receive help. This effect is sometimes exploited by criminals to commit heinous acts, despite numerous witnesses.


It should also lead to a re-evaluation of how secure you actually are in a public place surrounded with bystanders. The ‘bystander effect’ predicts you would be safer if attacked, and there was just one passer-by.


This is partly because of powerful psychological effects termed ‘diffusion of responsibility’ and ‘group inhibition’. Each person in a large crowd assumes it’s not just their responsibility to help someone, because there are so many others witnessing the same events. We are more inhibited from individual action, and standing out from the crowd, for various reasons, when in a group, compared to when alone.


Mark Levine’s paper entitled ‘Rethinking Bystander Nonintervention: Social Categorization and the Evidence of Witnesses at the James Bulger Murder Trial’, suggests the focus on the Bulger tragedy has been on the two killers, whereas instead the more obvious uncomfortable question has been avoided. We seem to have forgotten there were 38 witnesses who did nothing to practically assist Jamie Bulger. It’s this ‘bystander effect’ which might tell us more about our society and ourselves, than any amount of analysis of the minds of the two killers.


On Friday February 12 1993, James Bulger a 2-and-a-half-year-old boy was lured from his mother by two 10-year-old-boys. The three boys then ambled around Liverpool for more than two-and-a-half hours, before James was murdered beside a railway line. The public had an extended period in which to intervene, to what was in fact a horribly open crime.


Why nobody intervened in 1993, is particularly pressing in the light of how similar the case was to an infamous tragedy back in New York in 1964.


There were 38 witnesses to the rape and murder of Kitty Genoese outside her apartment building in an attack that lasted for more than half an hour. It was the failure of these 38 witnesses to intervene which initiated a famous series of social psychology experiments, trying to unravel the bystander effect.


38 Witnesses were called to the trail of Jon Thompson and Robert Venables, as these had all seen, or had contact with, the three boys on their walk across Liverpool towards the destination of his murder. Part of the reason so many were called was the need to resolve the question of the defence of the two boys accused of the crime, which appeared to turn on blaming each other as main instigators. There was also the question of whether this was a ‘prank gone wrong’ or a deliberate calculated crime.


Social Psychology experiments suggest whether people intervene or not, depends on what they think they are witnessing. Many of the witnesses appeared to have believed that the three boys were brothers, and on some occasions were directly manipulated to come to this conclusion by statements and actions from the two perpetrators.


It seems that we are much less likely to want to interfere with an event that appears to be going on within a ‘family’, than if strangers were involved.


Elaborate social psychology experiments where actors portray a man attacking a woman to investigate whether bystanders, who don’t know there is a social psychology experiment in play, intervene, find an odd tendency to be dramatically influenced not so much by the violence, but whether the man and woman are a ‘couple’. When subjects are led to believe that the couple are strangers, 65% intervene, but the figure drops to 19% if the witnesses are led to believe they are married.


The perceived relationship between those involved in the violence seems, oddly, to legitimise the violence, concludes Mark Levine. He argues in his paper, published in the academic journal ‘Human Relations’, something very similar happened in the Bulger tragedy.


It was because practically all the witnesses believed they were seeing an injured distressed two-and-half-year-old in the presence of his brothers, that they did nothing. There is something about the privilege we attach to particular relationships in terms of couples or families, which means we are more likely to turn a blind eye, if we see something unacceptable going on in that context.


It’s this powerful ‘family’ effect which accounts for a lot of the bystander effect in play on the day of James Bulger’s murder. Indeed it also explains many recent incidents of abduction which occurred for many years with neighbours doing nothing perhaps, because they believed what they were witnessing was something happening ‘in a family’.


Mark Levine contends that when it comes to tackling violence towards women and children we seem preoccupied with the threat of strangers – in fact violence most often comes from family members or intimates. We need to focus on making families safer places – and empowering friends and neighbours to intervene when they see or suspect violence is taking place.


Mark Levine points out that different societies permit intervention more. In Scandinavia (where there are prohibitions on smacking children) bystanders would be more likely to intervene if a women was hitting a child in a supermarket. That’s because they feel that others (and the law) would support them.


The upshot of Mark Levine’s argument is that as bystanders we need to change our attitude towards each other. Rather than treating people who do intervene as busybodies who should mind their own business – we should actively support each other, from being mere bystanders.


1 Comment

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  1. jutolch

    Bystander apathy is a fascinating subject altho I don’t see it is a particularly relevant issue in relation to the release of Venables and his previous problems in adjustment upon relase or the crime which resulted in his incarceration. Insofar as there are numerous other more pressing factors, such as the horrific background both boys came from and the fact that this type of background, parental violent and sexual abuse in combination with horrific neglect, persistent bullying in school, and exposure to sexual and violent videos / games & pornography at an extremely young age is increasing in our society and around the world in general. They also didn’t perpetrate this terrible crime in front of other. Plus there are the new issues of whether there has been any rehabilitation and if it is ethical or even possible to release this incredibly damaged man into society and expect him to be able to maintain a false identity.

    Going back to bystander apathy I wonder if things have altered since previous studies? People are no longer so deferential to authority, they don’t necessarily expect ‘someone else’ to take charge. People have less faith in the police for example. Plus, we have dramatically changed as society and are more vigilant due to terrorist acts, people are wary of (their inaction) being recorded on cctv, uploaded on youtube etc. We also have huge numbers of people resident in the country who are not from our ‘cultural’ background – does that make them more or less likely to conform? Also I wonder at which point there is a cut-off point in ‘numbers’ and in fact a baying mob can be incited into disproportionate gang mentality at the mere suggestion of a wrong-doing? Conversely studies have shown that never more so are our young people the ‘sheeple’ of the world who believe in brands / advertising etc and are easily swayed by marketing campaigns. I think whole new investigations on bystander apathy would be really relevant.

    As much as I personally dislike bystander apathy, it is a cultural and societal act of conformity for a good reason. The day people such as myself go around taking issues into their own hands, chaos and anarchy will reign. I think you find it would cause FAR MORE problems than solve any. Trust me when I say I do not have bystander apathy and this is not necessarily a ‘good’ personality trait!

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