Ervin Staub knows the importance of being an active bystander — a phrase he uses to distinguish someone who “takes action when action is needed.”
To exemplify that importance, he points to a few examples: a nurse in Turkey during World War I who took photos of Armenians as they were being killed, eventually exposing the genocide there; a soldier in Vietnam who witnessed the killing of innocent civilians and proceeded to spread awareness about the situation; a Christian woman who worked for his family in Hungary and helped Staub and his sister survive the Holocaust.
“Sometimes a single person can make a huge difference,” he told a group of about 80 people gathered at the Heinz History Center last Thursday night. The only way to make that difference though, he continued, is to “speak up and take action.”
Throughout his career, Staub, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has studied what makes people help others, what makes people harm others and what steps can be taken to prevent and later recover from horrific incidents like genocide. His work has taken him across the country to help police departments and educators and around the world to promote healing and reconciliation in places like Rwanda, Burundi and Congo.
In Pittsburgh, he spoke about his research and the lessons that his studies offer today at an event hosted by the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh and sponsored by the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, as well as working with the police department to discuss the state of policing and community relations in the city and hosting a workshop for teachers and other professionals on the best way to raise students to be caring and active bystanders.
“This is a man whose life experience is beyond anyone else’s,” said Lauren Bairnsfather, the director of the Holocaust Center. “He has brought this message of hope. He says there are things you can do, genocide is preventable.”
In researching the origins of genocide, Staub created what he called a “continuum of destruction,” or small steps that lead to violence that are often easy to ignore individually. At the same time, he continued, there is a natural process of trying to justify what has been done and, usually, other social factors that play into the violence, such as economic turmoil or social upheaval.
To demonstrate the natural escalation of violence, Staub described one experiment where subjects were assigned to be either a teacher or a student. The teachers were instructed to give the student an electric shock when they made a mistake. As the experiment continued, the teachers increased the level of shock on their own.
“One of the things about violence is that it evolves. It’s not that one day everything is normal and then there’s genocide,” Staub said. “If there is early action and early steps to inhibit [the violence] then it’s more likely to be successful.”
That early action can be especially difficult in strenuous times — the same type of pressures that can contribute to violence in the first place. People like to put on a “poker face,” Staub said, as if they don’t notice what is happening around them so they don’t have to feel responsible. That leads to a type of domino effect, where when people see that others are not reacting, they decide not to react either.
To test how likely people were to react based on social cues from people around them, Staub described another experiment in which the participant heard sounds of distress from the next room and then one of three responses from the person sitting with them — along the lines of “let’s not worry about that,” “that sounds bad,” or “that sounds bad, you should go check what’s going on.”
When prompted to check what was going on, the participant got up to help each time.
“We cannot take action without awareness,” he said. Similarly, today, “we have to do our own thinking, our own analysis, and find what we think are the core issues and then find allies.”
For Veronica Edwards, a member of the school board representing District 9, Staub’s lessons were important because they exemplified a new way to look at old issues that still haven’t been resolved, including discrimination and violence in schools. Now, Edwards said, they must figure out how to “use the power we already have to affect change and make sure that change affects everybody.”
“The [lecture] just brought it all home, that we still have a lot of work to do,” she said.
Staub first began this line of research after working with a professor at Stanford University who was studying “rescuers,” or people who put themselves in danger to help others. It “clicked” that he wanted to study what made people be kind to others. It wasn’t until later that the influence of his past — the people who had helped him survive the Holocaust and eventually escape Hungary — kicked in, he said.
Now, coming up on 80 years old, Staub continues to research and spread the message of what he has learned, hoping to inspire people to take that first step, something he said he doesn’t see enough of right now.
“I want people to become more aware,” he said after his lecture. “To become more knowing, to not close their eyes to what’s happening around them, to be more concerned about others, to be more active.” PJC