Standing Idly By

19 May 2013 by Nsikan Akpan, posted in TBS Journal Club

Two stories of waiting.

Portlandia's Did You Read.
(Click for video)

Does this ever happen to you? You read a story, and it just sticks with you. Over the past 2 weeks, I felt like I was repeatedly playing that Portlandian game “did you read…?” with the following:

Story 1: ‘Babies-in-waiting’

First up is a brutally honest essay from the Wall Street Journal by a woman who flipped the script on societal / self-inflicted pressures to settle down and opted to cryopreserve her eggs in her late-30s.

I decided to freeze on the afternoon of my 36th birthday, when I did a fresh round of baby math on the back of a business card at Starbucks. Even if the man I was dating at the time agreed to start a family in the near future, I was cutting it close to have one baby, let alone a second.

Amid all the talk about women "leaning in" and "having it all," the conversation has left out perhaps the most powerful gender equalizer of all—the ability to control when we have children.

Sarah Richards’ depiction is filled with the metropolitan commentary that you’d expect from a New Yorker, but it is a compelling account of the hard choices and ultimate liberation from the heavy chains of gender and evolution.

Thanks to “vitrification” – a relatively new advance in ooctye preservation – pregnancy success rates with frozen eggs have significantly improved over the past decade to ~50% overall.

This ultra-rapid cooling technique hardens the oocytes into a glass-like state without forming ice crystals. (Water can damage the eggs when they are thawed). Recent developments in cryopreservation are summarized in the 2012 guidelines from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine [link: PDF].

So is egg freezing a gender equalizer? It does reduce the likelihood of miscarriages and genetic defects in post-35-yr-old pregnancy, but it only expands the window of opportunity by approx. 5 years. Success rates with in vitro fertilization drop considerably from 27.7% in women aged 35-37 to 5% for women aged 40-42 (5%), according to data from UK’s NHS.

Also the physical toll of childbirth is tremendous, or as a friend wrote after I posted this WSJ piece to Facebook:

Having had my babies in my mid-twenties, I can say that it was really hard on my body. It would be challenging for me to do that in twenty years. Totally support whatever women choose to do, and the toll on an aging body should be considered.

I’d love to hear more readers’ opinions in the comments section.


Story 2: Waiting for Help.

Recently, stories of waiting for others to act or the infamous ‘bystander effect’ have nabbed my attention. This tenet of psychology maintains that a person is less likely to help a stranger in distress if there are others around to help.

This topic re-entered my mindscape last Wednesday, after I read a new study from Austria that challenges our penchant for looking the other way when it’s convenient.

It reports that the bystander effect breaks down when more than one help-giver is needed to solve a problem.

From the study:

“According to Latane and Darley (1970), three psychological processes – audience inhibition, social influence, and diffusion of responsibility – underlie the bystander effect. Bystanders may fear that their helping behaviour can be evaluated negatively by others (audience inhibition). They monitor the behaviour of other bystanders and interpret their inaction as proof that no help is needed (social influence). Finally, when in the presence of other bystanders the responsibility for intervention (and the blame for not taking action) is shared (diffusion of responsibility).”

In the first of three experiments, 47 psychology students replied to an emailed online survey.

“Some students were led to believe that they received the email alone, whereas some learned that others also received the request. Moreover, some students were led to believe that the survey needed to be completed by only one individual, whereas others learned that many responses were needed.”

Despite their small sample size, they found the bystander effect does not occur when many responses are required.

"When one response was sufficient, the typical bystander effect occurred in that 6.9% of those who received the request with no others completed the survey, whereas only 2.7% of those who received the request with many others did so."

"When many responses were needed, the bystander effect did not occur (if anything, it reversed): 7.2% of those who received the request with no others completed the survey and 12.9% of those who received the request with many others did so.”

So when teamwork is demanded, we are compelled to act? It’s a thought-provoking conclusion, rife with optimism. It would be fascinating to see a similar study conducted in a real-life situation that incorporates audience inhibition and social influence:

When others are giving money to a homeless man on the subway, are you more likely to give?

If I need help moving apartments, should I ask one friend or several? Should I ask them all at once?

I was pondering these ideas, when the bystander effect popped up again, two days later, after an assignment about how business situations erode morality landed on my desk at Medical Daily.

"The Bangladesh factory collapse has garnered international cries over the negligence of business leaders and assertions of indifference by Western consumers. Everyone is quick to claim the moral high ground, as the death toll has quickly crept past 1,000, but does the average person really care if someone else is harmed by commerce?"

"No" is the apparent answer from a new study in Science claiming that markets erode morality, even when the consequences are life-threatening for a third party."  ­

When individual students were asked to choose between 10 euros or to sacrifice the life of a mouse, 46% took the money (yikes!). In the second scenario, students were paired and assumed the roles of buyers and sellers. They were given 20 euros, and the sellers had to convince the buyers to agree on a “price” or a way to split the money. If the sellers succeeded, a mouse was killed, but if they refrained from negotiations, the mouse lived.

In this case, 72% - 76% of sellers sacrificed mice, even though they often traded for prices under 10 euros.

Aside for the dead mice, this is an intriguing way to investigate age-old questions about allowing us to displace guilt under the guise of business. Are we all prone to being swayed by monetary gain and greed?

The Bangladesh disaster has revived debates about working conditions in developing countries, and most of the blame is heaped upon the clothing companies who run the factories, rather than the consumers who buy from them. How long before the outrage fades and we return to standing idly by?

Sources: Richards SE. Why I Froze My Eggs (And You Should, Too). Wall Street Journal. 2013 May 3.

Greitemeyer T, Mügge D. Rational bystanders. Br J Soc Psychol. 2013 Apr 19. [Epub ahead of print]

Falk A, Szech N. Morals and markets. Science. 2013 May 10;340(6133):707-11.


2 Responses to “Standing Idly By”

    • Nsikan Akpan Reply | Permalink

      Whoops, it didn't copy from Word. Added a link and sources at the end. Cheers, Nsikan

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