Charlie Sheen, despite his denials to the contrary, is clearly unraveling. And the whole world is watching. We are continually transfixed by his every move, thought and action. We all know that we are watching him go down in flames, yet no one is pulling the fire alarm.
He’s certainly getting a lot of press, that’s for sure. As usual, the 24-hour news cycle can’t get enough of his antics. Sheen is a ratings bonanza. It’s all very dramatic and over the top, what with the (2!) stolen Mercedes flying over cliffs, the wives, the children and their multiple domestic violence accusations, the substance abuse, the porn stars and the cancellation of Two and a Half Men.
People are glued to Twitter and the tube to see what kind of crazy pours out of his mouth next. But, why is it that millions of people are standing by, but no one seems to be helping?
I pondered this after watching Sheen’s latest round of interviews… over and over and over. Obviously, human behavior and communication fascinates me; it’s what I do for a living. I have spent decades studying what we do, why we do it and how to harness the power of communication. Sheen’s outlandish behavior is so over the top, I could literally spend weeks analyzing his every movement, statement and action.
Instead, this time I feel it is necessary to turn the tables, and ask some pretty difficult questions.
First, why on earth we are all still tuning in? Is it time to simply tune out?
Second, what responsibility do we all bear for Sheen’s problems?
In 1964, a woman named Kitty Genovese was fatally stabbed mere feet from her apartment door in Queens, New York. Despite the fact that her screams for help were heard by many of her neighbors, no one called for help or came to her assistance. Police, journalists and the public were stunned that so many individuals could have bared witness to this brutal attack, yet did nothing. No telephone calls to the police; no intervention of any kind.
Was a simple lack of empathy for another human being to blame?
Social scientists Bill Latane and John Darley set out to prove this explanation wrong. They conducted a series of experiments simulating crisis situations on the streets of NYC to determine if in fact there was an underlying reason for such disconnect.
What they discovered was this: as the number of witnesses increases, the likelihood that any one person comes forward to help decreases.
The numbers were startling. When only 1 “witness” was nearby, the subject received assistance 85% of the time. When 5 or more “witnesses” were present, help arrived only 30% of the time.
In the case of Kitty Genovese, dozens of nearby people witnessed her murder – any one of them could have saved her life, yet they did nothing.
For Charlie, this bystander effect is magnified in ways we can hardly imagine.
He joins Twitter and has 1 million followers within 24 hours. An interview with major news outlets reaches across the globe, tens of millions tune in. The videos are replayed on YouTube for countless more.
And I sit in a quiet hotel room, laptop open. Repeatedly watching the Sheen spiral…over and over and over.
I am one of the bystanders to Sheen’s very public troubles. Millions of witnesses, yet not one person brave enough to step forward. Because of his fame, help may arrive far too late – if it arrives at all.