Monday 23 Nov 2020 | 22:33 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 Nov 2020 | 22:33 | SYDNEY

The Genovese Syndrome


Sam Roggeveen


23 July 2010 12:49

Back in June 2008 I wrote a post about the 'Genovese Syndrome', a phenomenon that describes why people (and sometimes states) are so reluctant to intervene in what seem to be dire emergencies:

In The Shield of Achilles, Phillip Bobbitt argues that the Genovese Syndrome helps explain state inaction in the face of humanitarian disasters such as the one that occurred in the Balkans in the 1990s. Bobbitt says it's not apathy or cowardice that paralyses individuals or states in such emergencies, but ambiguity. Is this really an emergency? If so, is outside action justified? By whom? And what type of action? There are uncertainties involved in addressing each of these questions, but until they are all resolved, action is impossible. And emergencies, says Bobbitt, 'by their very nature involve actual harm or the threat of harm'. So we are also constantly weighing up the risk to ourselves in deciding whether to act.

Here's a South African government ad (in the guise of an experiment) which illustrates the problem nicely (h/t Daily What):