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The Bystander Effect: What Would You do?

Updated on May 28, 2015
Rfordin profile image

Rebecca has been a freelancer online for 6+ years. She enjoys writing, editing and being a stay-at-home mom to two beautiful little girls.


What is the Bystander Effect?

The term bystander effect refers to a social phenomenon in which the humanity of people come into question.

The bystander effect proves time and time again that the greater the number of people present, the less likely people are to help a person in distress.

In other words when an emergency situation occurs, observers are more likely to take action if there are few or no other witnesses.

Once someone stops to help, other people stop to offer their help as well.

Why does this happen?

If you were a passerby in the video above....

What do you do?

See results

Why We Fall Victim to the Bystander Effect

One reason is it's so easy to "pass the buck" is because we assume someone else will take care of it. Thus leaving us free of the moral obligation to help one another should the need arrise.

Another reason(s) we may fall victim to the bystander effect is our innate need to behave in a way as to protect ourselves, not be bothered, or follow behaviors that would be considered part of a social norm.

Therefore if people are just walking by we may surmise:

"Well other's are just walking by, surely that person is OK."

But if others stop we then sense an urgency and we conform to what is considered socially normal.


Kitty Genovese and the Bystander Effect

Possibly the most famous, yet gruesome, story of the bystander effect is that of a woman named Kitty Genovese.

Upon returning home from work Kitty Genovese was less than 100 feet from her apartment door when she was brutally raped, stabbed, and left for dead.

After the publication of the horrific crime many neghibors, 38 to be exact, reported hearing screams for help, or that they had peered out their windows and visualy witnessed the crime taking place. It wasn't until after Kitty Genovese suffered a horrfic death that people began to share the stories of what they had witnessed.

Some witnesses even reported shutting their curtains or windows to avoid hearing the "noise" or getting involved.

For more on Kitty Genovese see the link to the right. "A Cry In The Night..."

How many times have you heard screams, or a cry of help and not taken action based solely on not wanting to get involved?

The Bystander Effect When Children Are Involved

When children are involved one would think that an adult (or anyone) would be more inclined to step in and help.

Sadly, the bystander effect still comes into play.

The majority of people when asked about why they did not help the little girl responded with "the child is just acting out" or "someone else will handle it".

As a Mother...

As a mother of two young girls I would welcome someone questioning my child if she ever was yelling anything of that nature.In the heat of the moment I may be aggravated but I would calm down (eventually) and rationalize that that bystander was trying to protect my child.

At the same time I confess I am guilty of the bystander effect when it comes to "minding my own business". Simply, for many of the reasons listed above.

Theoretically, it's easy to say I would stop and help whomever needed the help.

But would you?


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    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      I remember studying this effect in psychology. It is especially prevalent in populas cities.

    • Rfordin profile image

      Rfordin 4 years ago from Florida

      Hey innerspin,

      I agree with you 100% about taking into account being a 'lone female. As a paranoid person to begin with I hear to many stories of people taking advantage of others good will with tricks, or gimmicks. It's just sad.

      But I also appreciate the people (like yourself) who have stepped in to help as I would want someone to help my mother, father, children etc.

      Thanks for stopping by.


    • Angela Blair profile image

      Angela Blair 4 years ago from Central Texas

      As helping someone is a true judgment call -- many won't go there. I've stepped in several times when everyone would have been much better off if I'd stayed out of the way. My brother says I'd charge hell with a bucket of ice water and this is both a good and a bad trait as there's times I should have minded my own business. When I feel I can prevent bodily harm to someone I simply can't just stand there. Good Hub and interesting subject! Best/Sis

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 4 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      That is interesting, the more people around, the less likely someone is to stop and help. I never thought of it that way. I live in a place where there just aren't that many people around, and if I don't help, who will? I can see, though, how it would be different in a large city. When I am in an airport or travelling in an unfamiliar place, I am less likely to personalize my surroundings.

    • innerspin profile image

      innerspin 4 years ago from uk

      I know someone who's sister was so badly beaten by her boyfriend that he broke her pelvis. This was in the middle of a crowded shopping area. No-one helped. The poor girl was left lying there until police came along.

      I have stepped in on a few occasions when someone was in trouble. It can be difficult as a lone female, you have to take your own safety into account. But, as the video shows, others are more willing to come forward once someone makes the first move. It's an interesting fact.

    • Rfordin profile image

      Rfordin 4 years ago from Florida

      Hi justateacher,

      That's awesome. I tend to be a bystander. It's sad, and of course if anything was happening to me or my loved ones I would hope someone would stop and help but alas not many do. Thank you for being one of the few who don't just "wait and see".

      Thanks for stopping by.


    • justateacher profile image

      LaDena Campbell 4 years ago from Somewhere Over The Rainbow - Near Oz...

      I have stopped and helped when others have walked or driven by...I always feel bad that others are not stopping and want to make sure things are okay..I have called police when I didn't feel safe in the situation...have ended up embarrassed a few times...once when a man was just sleeping a drunk of in his front yard (partly on the sidewalk)...called the police once when I heard what I thought was gunshots - turned out to be fireworks...but I would rather be embarrassed then have someone in danger and I not help...

    • Rfordin profile image

      Rfordin 4 years ago from Florida

      Hi billybuc,

      I would be a passerby. I'm no good in emergency situations ever (even when it's happening in my own home) I tend to freeze and look for reassurance. If I am the only one there somehow I manage to kick it into gear and do what needs to be done. However if there are other people there I look to them for advice, reassurance, guidance etc.

      Nice to see you.


    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      It's an interesting question, Becky! I think it's easy for everyone to say of course they would help, but I wonder how many truly would. My dad helped many times during my childhood. He was just one of those people who never hesitated to help out in an emergency. I hope I learned from him.