By Nalini Padmanabhan, cross-posted from Target Population

Anyone who’s ever taken a psychology class would be able to tell the story of Kitty Genovese and the societal observation it gave birth to, known as the Genovese effect or the bystander effect. Her story is not easily forgotten. According to Michael Dorman of NewsDay, her 1964 murder in Queens – witnessed by 38 neighbors, none of whom acted to help her – became “a symbol of Americans’ failure to get involved.” Two weeks after the murder, the New York Times’ Martin Gansberg described that failure to get involved as an example of the callousness and apathy of the big-city environment.

But why am I writing about this today? Today, on my way home in my own big-city environment, my mind occupied by trivialities like my upcoming thesis, I saw the Genovese effect proven wrong. It was about an hour ago, and I’m still shaken, but I’m hopeful. Two men were hanging around the benches near my home metro station, and as usual, I took care to avoid eye contact with the loiterers, thinking you could never be too careful after dark in the city. As I got closer, I noticed that there was a third man on the ground. The back of his head was bleeding freely, and his eyes were closed. Glancing up at the two men who were standing, I noticed a little ruefully that they were not in fact loitering, but discussing what to do.

I stopped to ask what had happened and what I could do, and thinking about it now, I’m so glad it didn’t occur to me to walk on. Apparently, he’d hit his head pretty hard and fallen. Neither of his helpers knew him, I realized, as he regained consciousness and looked up at them in confusion. Within a few minutes, and with the support of nearly every person who passed us and stopped to help, an ambulance was on its way, and we’d propped up his head with a towel from a nearby building, coached him not to move, and enlisted a security guard’s help. The man was conscious and talking – though a little incoherently – and it looked like he’d be okay. Though I didn’t do anything useful but summarize the situation for the security guard, it was only after her arrival that I felt I could leave.

And I wasn’t the only one, I was happy to notice. All but one of the passersby stopped, and not one of us who stayed felt comfortable doing nothing to help. And thanks to the help of total strangers, I’m pretty sure he’ll be okay. As unfortunate as the event was – and I still don’t know what he hit his head on or how – it’s so good to confirm my faith in the people around me. I saw tonight that we are basically good, even if we lose sight of that once in a while. In a big-city environment, we’re so ready to isolate ourselves with iPods and the Express on the morning commute, and so quick to clutch our bags when a friendly tourist smiles or says hello. But when it counts, we do care about and help each other, and even better, we don’t think twice about it.

Nalini Padmanabhan is a second-year graduate student at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services. A recipient of GWU’s Prevention and Community Health Research Fellowship, she will be graduating in May 2009 with an MPH in Public Health Communication & Marketing and a Graduate Certificate in Health Policy. She plans to specialize in using writing and the mass media to communicate health information and scientific breakthroughs to the public.