THE BLOG
05/07/2013 09:42 BST | Updated 04/09/2013 06:12 BST

As One of the Killers of James Bulger Is to Be Released, Could a Similar Tragedy Happen Again?

It is widely reported that Jon Venables, one of the two perpetrators originally found guilty for the killing of James Bulger, could be about to be released from prison. Venables had previously been paroled, but was returned to jail for accessing child pornography.

James's mother Denise Fergus tweeted in response: "Venables is getting released. Just don't believe what I've got to go through again."

While it is not clear when Venables will be released, the latest development will undoubtedly rekindle harrowing memories of how the toddler was beaten with bricks and iron bars, his body then left on a railway line.

But Professor Mark Levine, a psychologist based at Exeter University has published an in-depth psychological analysis of the James Bulger trial, predicting similar terrible events could easily recur, even now.

Mark Levine analysed the statements of the 38 witnesses called to the trial, who saw or met James Bulger on the day of his murder, yet who did nothing to intervene, despite the fact the toddler was obviously injured, and in distress.

Why don't bystanders assist victims? Indeed psychologists have found the more bystanders there are, the less likely is any victim to receive help. This effect is sometimes exploited by criminals to commit heinous acts, despite numerous witnesses.

It should also lead to a re-evaluation of how secure you actually are in a public place surrounded with bystanders. The 'bystander effect' predicts you would be safer if attacked, and there was just one passer-by.

This is partly because of powerful psychological effects termed 'diffusion of responsibility' and 'group inhibition'. Each person in a large crowd assumes it's not just their responsibility to help someone, because there are so many others witnessing the same events. We are more inhibited from individual action, and standing out from the crowd, for various reasons, when in a group, compared to when alone.

Mark Levine's paper entitled 'Rethinking Bystander Nonintervention: Social Categorization and the Evidence of Witnesses at the James Bulger Murder Trial', suggests the focus on the Bulger tragedy has been on the two killers, whereas instead the more obvious uncomfortable question has been avoided. We seem to have forgotten there were 38 witnesses who did nothing to practically assist Jamie Bulger. It's this 'bystander effect' which might tell us more about our society and ourselves, than any amount of analysis of the minds of the two killers.

On Friday February 12 1993, James Bulger a 2-and-a-half-year-old boy was lured from his mother by two 10-year-old-boys. The three boys then ambled around Liverpool for more than two-and-a-half hours, before James was murdered beside a railway line. The public had an extended period in which to intervene, to what was in fact a horribly open crime.

Why nobody intervened in 1993, is particularly pressing in the light of how similar the case was to an infamous tragedy back in New York in 1964.

There were 38 witnesses to the rape and murder of Kitty Genoese outside her apartment building in an attack that lasted for more than half an hour. It was the failure of these 38 witnesses to intervene which initiated a famous series of social psychology experiments, trying to unravel the bystander effect.

38 witnesses were called to the trail of Jon Thompson and Robert Venables, as these had all seen, or had contact with, the three boys on their walk across Liverpool towards the destination of his murder. Part of the reason so many were called was the need to resolve the question of the defence of the two boys accused of the crime, which appeared to turn on blaming each other as main instigators. There was also the question of whether this was a 'prank gone wrong' or a deliberate calculated crime.

Social Psychology experiments suggest whether people intervene or not, depends on what they think they are witnessing. Many of the witnesses appeared to have believed that the three boys were brothers, and on some occasions were directly manipulated to come to this conclusion by statements and actions from the two perpetrators.

It seems that we are much less likely to want to interfere with an event that appears to be going on within a 'family', than if strangers were involved.

Elaborate social psychology experiments where actors portray a man attacking a woman to investigate whether bystanders, who don't know there is a social psychology experiment in play, intervene, find an odd tendency to be dramatically influenced not so much by the violence, but whether the man and woman are a 'couple'. When subjects are led to believe that the couple are strangers, 65% intervene, but the figure drops to 19% if the witnesses are led to believe they are married.

The perceived relationship between those involved in the violence seems, oddly, to legitimise the violence, concludes Mark Levine. He argues in his paper, published in the academic journal 'Human Relations', something very similar happened in the Bulger tragedy.

It was because practically all the witnesses believed they were seeing an injured distressed two-and-half-year-old in the presence of his brothers, that they did nothing. There is something about the privilege we attach to particular relationships in terms of couples or families, which means we are more likely to turn a blind eye, if we see something unacceptable going on in that context.

It's this powerful 'family' effect which accounts for a lot of the bystander effect in play on the day of James Bulger's murder. Indeed it also explains many recent incidents of abduction which occurred for many years with neighbours doing nothing perhaps, because they believed what they were witnessing was something happening 'in a family'.

When it comes to tackling violence towards women and children we seem preoccupied with the threat of strangers - in fact violence most often comes from family members or intimates. We need to focus on making families safer places - and empowering friends and neighbours to intervene when they see or suspect violence is taking place.

Different societies permit intervention more. In Scandinavia (where there are prohibitions on smacking children) bystanders would be more likely to intervene if a women was hitting a child in a supermarket. That's because they feel that others (and the law) would support them.

As bystanders we need to change our attitude towards each other. Rather than treating people who do intervene as busybodies who should mind their own business - we should actively support each other, from being mere bystanders.