I.

There’s a supercharged, dire wolf form of the bystander effect that I’d like to shine a spotlight on.

First, a quick recap. The Bystander Effect is a phenomenon where people are less likely to help when there’s a group around. When I took basic medical training, I was told to always ask one specific person to take actions instead of asking a crowd at large. “You, in the green shirt! Call 911!” (911 is the emergency services number in the United States.) One habit I worked hard to instill in my own head was that if I’m in a crowd that’s asked to do something, I silently count off three seconds. If nobody else responds, I either decide to do it or decide not to do it and I say that. 

I like this habit, because the Bystander Effect is dumb and I want to fight it. Several times now it’s pushed me to step forward in circumstances where I otherwise wouldn’t have, thinking maybe someone else would. If everyone else had this habit, the Bystander Effect wouldn’t be a thing.

II.

There’s a more pernicious, insidious version that I haven’t managed to build a habit against.

Imagine a medical emergency. Someone is hurt, and someone steps forward to start applying first aid. They call out “Someone call 911!” There’s a moment’s pause as the crowd looks at each other, wondering if someone will. Then someone in a green shirt steps forward and says “I’ll do it!” and pulls out their phone. Huzzah! The Bystander Effect is defeated! 

Then twenty minutes later the first aid person asks “Hey, did 911 say how long they were going to take?” and the guy in the green shirt says “What? Oh, right, yeah, I didn’t have any cell service so I’ve been reading an ebook on my phone.”

This Dire Bystander Effect would defeat my habit. If someone else said that they were calling 911, I wouldn’t also step forward to call 911. I’d go and do something else, maybe making the victim more comfortable or holding things for the person applying first aid or possibly even go along with my day if it looked like the circumstances were well in hand.

This story is an exaggeration for dramatic effect. I don’t think anyone would quietly wait around after saying they would call emergency services, not having done so. It might be worse though! If the person in the green shirt failed to get cell service, they might walk away from the scene looking for more signal without telling anyone. Then when the person applying first aid asks, nobody nearby can answer and nobody knows how to get that answer and nobody wants to call 911 because maybe 911 has already been called and you don’t want to call twice about the same thing?

That last part isn’t an exaggeration by the way. It is a thing people sometimes think. If you are ever in an emergency and are unsure if someone has already called emergency services, call them twice, it’s fine, it’s better to be sure.

III.

Less dramatic versions of this are sneakier. If you’ve undertaken to do something that isn’t an emergency, that’s going to take a month or two anyway, and it isn’t super important, it's just something someone wanted done. . . 

Well. It’s easy for that task to constantly wind up on the bottom of your to-do list, to not quite get finished, to get less and less attention over time. It must not be that important anyway, it’s not that big of a problem. Or maybe it is important and you’re going to get to it tomorrow. . . next week. . . soon. People have probably forgotten about it anyway. 

That isn’t even always wrong! Maybe the new things on your plate are more important or circumstances have changed! But uh, it’s also possible that the metaphorical victim is still there, wondering when the ambulance is going to get there, and someone else would step up if they knew you weren’t actively working on it.

The habit I have been trying to instill in myself is this; when I have publicly stepped forward to take up a task, I set dates for myself when new things will get done, and if task has slipped low enough in my priorities that I haven’t touched it in a month and ideally would have, I announce that. If I hadn't been public but just stepped forward privately to a few individuals, I tell them I'm setting the task aside.

It doesn’t even mean that I’m not going to do the thing! The announcement can be that I’m taking a break from it. The announcement can be an indefinite break. Sometimes I really do eventually finish it!

I don’t think this is the ideal version of this habit. For one thing, I picked a month mostly because a week felt like too short and a year felt like too long. To function correctly, it relies on other habits I’ve already set up, like writing down what I’m trying to do each day in a format that’s relatively easy to check against all the projects I’ve taken up. Since a common cause of not doing things people think you're doing is that you forgot about them, it'd be easy to forget. Habits are easiest to form with clear triggers or regular patterns, and this problem specifically lacks both.

Also, it sure is possible for the illusion of transparency to leave someone else thinking I’m obviously working on this, and for me to feel like I’m obviously not working on it. 

Adam: "Someone should do this thing!"
Bella: "Yep, I hope someone does that. Maybe I'll get around to it if I have time."
(A while later. . .)
Adam: "Hey Bella, is that thing done?
Bella: "What? No, I've been kind of busy. Was I supposed to do that?"

So while I've been trying to instill a habit of warning people when I drop a project, I don't actually have high hopes it'll work. 

IV.

A better habit, and one that I have mostly trained in myself successfully, is to appreciate people when they tell me they've stopped working on something instead of quietly fading.

Honestly, small appreciation seems to be one of the underappreciated secret weapons in my arsenal. I thank people for giving me honest feedback, even when it's negative. I thank people for telling me what they're feeling, even when those feelings are sadness or frustration. I'm open to the idea that I take this too far (I thank ChatGPT for trying, even when it fails to do what I wanted it to do) but I like the direction of my mistake here more than its opposite. Too many people in my eyes vent abrasive criticism on even good and successful projects. Heck, for a while there was a whole meme and slogan about it. "What, do you want a cookie?"

(That always seemed like a really dumb thing to say. Yeah, I'd like a cookie. Do you not like cookies? I think I've got some chocolate around here if you'd rather have that.)

You get more of what you incentivize. If I want to get more early warnings of impending project failure, I need to incentivize people to tell me when a project is going to fail. To paraphrase the Litany of Gendlin, what is true is already so. Not being open about it doesn't make the project magically work. 

Alternately, to paraphrase an old boss of mine: If I know your feature wasn't going to be done by the demo date, I won't put it on the demo script, that's fine. If you tell me it's going to be done by the demo date and it isn't, then we have a problem.

V. 

If you take one thing away from this, take away that cookies are delicious the Bystander Effect is dumb and we should fight it.

If you take two things away from this though, take this: that when you're stepping away from something that other people are relying on you to do, please try to let them know. I can't promise that they'll take the information with equanimity. I can't even promise that you personally will be better off for doing so. Sometimes they forgot about that thing, and you've just reminded them in the same breath that as saying they won't get the thing. But I think this is one of the missing pieces of group rationality, and organizations (be they however loosely knit) which are capable of noticing when someone is stepping away have an advantage. 

I want to tell you it's okay to ask but that's actually not a great solution. If you think someone is working on a project but there doesn't seem to be any signs of life, reaching out with an email or a quick word can be a way to verify that they're still on it. It's not great partially because sometimes they might say yes out of embarrassment and then scramble to catch up. The bigger hazard is that too many people asking "so hey, is that thing ready?" is both unhelpful and really annoying. 

Speaking as someone often working on projects that a hundred people care about, if every one of them sent me one email asking if I was still working on it then answering their emails would become a not-insignificant part of the time I'd allocated to the project. Asking where their response will be visible to others can help, but many people will miss that message.

Oh, and if for some reason you think this was written about you specifically, it wasn't. I've had a draft of this essay hanging around for years, and every time I thought about publishing it I worried that one person or another would think it was about them because of recent events. It's not just you! It's me! It's a lot of people! 

The merciless constraints of time and energy, as well as the vagaries of muse and inspiration, mean that people are going to step back from projects. That's frustrating from both sides. Still, for now this is my best advice to myself and others.

Loudly give up, don't quietly fade.

New Comment
12 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:23 AM

There seems to be an edit error after “If I just stepped forward privately, I tell the people I”. If this post wasn’t about the bystander effect, I would just have hoped someone else would have pointed it out!

Yep, that sure was an edit error. Thank you for pointing it out!

Very well described.

In terms of asking people where a project is, I have a vague idea that instead of asking "Are you still working on project X", you can instead ask

Q : "Hey, what projects are you working on/prioritising at the moment?"

A: "A is happening today. I want to get onto B at the end of the week. C is happening in the background. I haven't forgotten D, don't worry."   

Q: (Knows that X is not happening)

I don't think this level of trickery is a good idea.

If you're working with someone honest, you should ask for the info you want. On the other hand, if you're working with someone who will obfuscate when asked "Are you working on X?", I don't see a strong reason to believe that they will give better info when instead asking about their top priorities.

Perhaps. I would not consider it "trickery". You wanted specific information, but instead asked for general information that contained that specific.

If I am the one being asked "are you still working on X", then (for some values of X) I can imagine my though process being "Oh yeah, X, I have been meaning to get onto that", and replying "Sorry, I have been busy with other stuff, will get onto it", then drop the other stuff and do indeed get on with X. In the context of this discussion that would not be the intended outcome, because the intent of the question was to discover information, not to change my priorities.

I think you are sort of missing the point when you bring in "honesty". Even an honest co-worker who you trust can have a thing that is number 10 on their to-do list.  A simple yes/no "is it on your to-do list" would yield a yes. Although in this case it is in real danger of never actually being done, simply because if its number 10 on the list now then its implied value is low enough that new things coming onto the list are very likely to leapfrog it.

I still think that if you want to know where X is on someone's TODO list, you should ask that instead of asking for their full TODO list. This feels nearly as wrong as asking for someone's top 5 movies of the year, instead of whether or not they liked Oppenheimer (when you want to know if they liked Oppenheimer).

It's about asking the right questions to get the right info. I feel like your example actually disproves your point. In my perspective asking for someone's top 5 movies of the year is going to much more accurately predict if they liked Oppenheimer than asking if they liked Oppenheimer directly. The direct question will imply that you have some interest in Oppenheimer and are probably expecting them to either like it or at least have a strong opinion of it. Their inference will then affect the accuracy of their answer.

There haven't been many good movies released in 2023 so if someone doesn't include Oppenheimer in their top 5 list then they probably didn't like the movie and you know your question didn't bias them towards any particular opinion.

What would you recommend in cases where there isn't a single moment in time when one has given up? Most of my projects are inactive in the sense that I haven't done much with them in a while (months or years), but also, they aren't completely dead. I gradually lost interest in the project or prioritized doing other things, but there isn't a sharp cutoff when that happened, and I might pick it up again. To give a concrete example, one of my blogs has a posting history that looks like this (numbers in parentheses indicate number of blog posts in that month):

   October 2023 (4)
   May 2023 (2)
   April 2023 (2)
   August 2022 (1)
   November 2021 (1)
   September 2021 (2)
   July 2021 (1)
   April 2021 (1)
   March 2021 (1)
   February 2021 (1)
   November 2020 (2)
   October 2020 (1)
   September 2020 (3)
   August 2020 (3)
   July 2020 (3)
   June 2020 (12)
   May 2020 (25)
   April 2020 (28)
   March 2020 (23)

I think that's probably the most common version of quietly fading. You do a bunch of work on something for a while, then a little less, then less, then it trickles out.

Most of the time I think that pattern is fine, because most of the time nobody is relying on you. I don't have the numbers as handy, but my efforts to learn particular musical instruments or languages fit the same pattern your blog has without the 2023 revival. (Congratulations on that by the way!) Countless D&D campaigns I've been in would meet once a week for months, then twice a month, then once a month, then we start skipping months. It's fine.

The right answer depends on the project, and I'm hampered in the post by trying to generalize too broadly. A work project in a busy office with tight deadlines? It might be worth telling your coworkers after two or three days of not touching a project. The failure condition is if they would assign someone else to work on the project if they knew you weren't actively pushing forward on it. A personal blog written for your own writing practice? I don't think you ever need to announce you're giving up. It's not that nobody cares about the personal blog, but most likely nobody is waiting around going "it's important to me that the blog updates and I would do it myself if somebody had to, but I'm sure it's all well in hand." 

In the post itself, I suggest checking if "I haven’t touched it in a month and ideally would have." Some projects have months where there's no reason to work on it, for instance a backyard garden probably doesn't need much work in January. If you have a list of all the projects you've taken up, and you look at them on the first day of a new month and one of them hasn't been touched at all, that's the best trigger I've come up with. The central example of a project this post was written for is something like a once-a-year event lots of people like and would organize if they knew nobody else was doing it, but where the default assumption is usually that whoever did it last year will do it again this year.

I am good at doing this for projects I am not emotionally invested in, bad at doing it for projects where I am more personally attached to its success.

[+][comment deleted]3mo20