What a Tragic Traffic Incident Says About Chinese Social Ethics

2017-06-16 07:29:58

A video recording of another horrific traffic incident has gripped Chinese social media. After being knocked to the ground by a taxi, a woman lies prone in the middle of a busy road. The taxi drives on, though its two occupants are later detained; neither nearby pedestrians nor other drivers stop to help the woman at the scene, though more than a dozen people reported the incident to the police. The woman is run over by another vehicle, and later dies from her injuries.

The incident actually happened in April 2017 in Zhumadian, a city in central China’s Henan province, but the surveillance video surfaced only last week. Like similar previous scandals, web users blamed Chinese people’s supposed apathy, lack of proper ethical values, or the seemingly perennial problem of having low suzhi — a Chinese term roughly equivalent to civic awareness that is commonly cited as an impediment to embodying a civilized society.

My recent paper in the Journal of Contemporary China analyzes these prevailing discourses using game theory, the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between rational decision-makers. I show that it is misguided to simply attribute China’s many social ills to people’s supposed lack of suzhi or ethics. In fact, the issue often does not lie with the values of individuals, but with their expectations for people’s behavior in social interactions that carry multiple potential outcomes. Without favorable social expectations that induce citizens to act in the interests of strangers, even compassionate people will often walk right by — a behavior that characterizes many negative social phenomena in contemporary China.

Because my paper was published before the incident in Zhumadian took place, it does not analyze the incident itself, though it does refer to the controversial case of Peng Yu, who in the minds of many is an important starting-point for understanding Chinese people’s ostensible reluctance to help strangers in recent years.

In 2006, a young man named Peng Yu, from Nanjing in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, helped an elderly woman who had fallen and was lying injured near a bus get to the hospital. Peng also paid for her medical treatment. Later, the woman sued him, claiming that Peng had bumped into her when getting off the bus, causing her to fall. The woman demanded compensation, and a judge ruled in her favor, arguing that under normal circumstances, nobody would take a stranger to the hospital — let alone pay their medical bills — unless they were somehow responsible for the injury.

The real issue is often not about individual values, but about social expectations and beliefs.

Following the ruling, Chinese media reported numerous cases in which alleged good Samaritans were sued for civil liabilities by the people they helped. Since then, citizens have lamented both online and publicly the ethical vacuum of people who sue their saviors, claiming that fear of legal action has further reduced everyday altruism. But are ethics really the core issue here? Or might the plaintiffs in such cases actually be reasonable people, with something else causing the social problem?

To answer these questions, I built a simple game theoretic model to analyze the likely interactions between a fictional elderly person who falls to the ground and passersby. Because of the person’s age and confused mental state, the model assumes that they do not remember for sure how they fall.

My model shows that there are multiple “equilibria” — stable, prevailing social norms — that can emerge from this kind of situation. They have less to do with the supposed ethical values of each individual participant, and more to do with social expectations about whether a random passerby would help someone in need.

In the end, the result is quite intuitive. If society generally expects that passersby will offer help regardless of whether they are responsible for causing the fall, then the elderly person has no reason to suspect that the person helping them is at fault for their injuries. This means that they are unlikely to sue, and so random passersby, anticipating that no harm will come from their intervention, will in turn be more likely to help.

On the other hand, if the society commonly expects that only those who are responsible for someone’s fall would provide help, then the elderly person has reason to believe that their ostensible good Samaritan actually caused the incident in the first place, and therefore will be more likely to pursue legal action against them. Passersby not responsible for the fall will, in turn, be discouraged from helping, and those responsible for the fall may or may not help depending on a number of circumstances, including the seriousness of the person’s injuries.

The worst-case scenario is this: First, the fall is serious. Second, society does not expect passersby to help regardless of their responsibility for the fall. Third, if someone does help, society believes that they were most likely responsible for the fall in the first place. In the end, almost nobody helps the senior citizen, and they, in turn, sue anyone who offers assistance.

Social expectations don’t just change overnight, and probably involve more than top-down demands for citizens to look out for each other.

In other words, in cases like those that occurred in Nanjing and Zhumadian, the outcomes probably do not say much about the relevant individuals’ personal ethics. Instead, they say much more about social expectations in China and how people are more likely to suspect foul play when others come to their aid.

Indeed, research has shown that people involved in cases against those who have helped them are generally law-abiding citizens with no previous record of extortive behavior. Often, however, the public jumps to conclusions about each case, decrying the plaintiff’s supposedly unethical behavior and expressing support for the defendant.

But these conclusions are often too rash. Years after Peng was told to pay compensation to the woman he helped, he admitted that he had accidentally bumped into her while alighting from the bus, causing her to fall.

To return to the recent incident in Zhumadian, if Chinese people really did not care about others, why would so many of them call the police after the incident? Why would so many internet users feel so indignant about what happened?

Of course, the Zhumadian case is unlike the Nanjing case in two ways. First, many more bystanders witnessed the incident in Zhumadian. Second, in Zhumadian it was these bystanders who were accused of having low ethics, not the victim of the traffic incident.

Game theoretic analysis, however, shows that as the number of bystanders increases, the probability that any one of them will offer help decreases, as does the overall likelihood that someone from the group will give assistance. As a result, onlookers are most likely to help only when they are the only person around. This explains the so-called bystander effect, or diffusion of responsibility, that psychologists discovered following the brutal murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City in 1964.

Discourses blaming low suzhi or poor ethics as a significant source of China’s many social ills permeate official speech, intellectual discussions, and popular parlance. A close analysis, however, shows that the real issue is often not about individual values, but about social expectations and beliefs. In other words, it is not about ethics, but about equilibria.

The question of how to change social expectations and induce a good equilibrium is complex. But one thing the media should do is avoid sensationalizing incidents like what happened in Zhumadian, as this only lowers social expectations even further. We may also encourage the spread of “positive energy,” for example by circulating inspiring stories to make people more optimistic and hopeful in an otherwise pessimistic and cynical social environment. But the government must refrain from turning this into an all-out propaganda campaign, which might only invite even more cynicism from the public.

Social expectations are often called “sticky” because changing them requires many people to reconsider their beliefs at the same time. This doesn’t just happen overnight, and probably involves more than top-down demands for citizens to look out for each other. Cultivating favorable social expectations is therefore a real challenge in the making of a good, altruistic, and civilized society, both in China and elsewhere.

Editor: Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: A view of a crossroad in Zhongshan, Guangdong province, Dec. 8, 2014. Wu Jin/VCG)