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The Psychology of the Bystander Effect

Updated on June 29, 2013
Kitty Genovese.  The bystander effect is also called Genovese syndrome after this woman whose murder was heard and witnessed by numerous neighbors in her apartment complex.
Kitty Genovese. The bystander effect is also called Genovese syndrome after this woman whose murder was heard and witnessed by numerous neighbors in her apartment complex.

I was walking to the grocery store when an adorable little tan chihauhau mix ran around the corner and up to another lady walking towards me who had two dogs. The dogs greeted each other politely. As I caught up, the lady asked me if this was my dog. I said no, and continued walking to the grocery store.

About a week later there were signs posted on the street lights for a lost dog, the same one I had walked by without trying to find its owner. Suddenly I felt very guilty. It's name was Pinky and the sign said it needed to be found quickly because it needed medications daily.

While not exactly an emergency, this situation shows how the bystander effect can make you not do what you may know is the right thing to do in your head. This phenomena has been studied by social psychologists and happens in definite emergencies where someone is actually hurt or in danger.

The bystander effect is when you do not intervene to help somebody in the presence of others who are also doing nothing. It is also known as Genovese syndrome, after a woman named Kitty Genovese who was murdered in 1964 at the age of 28 just outside her own apartment complex. Neighbors heard the screams and saw parts of the struggle yet no one came to help her.

The attack triggered social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané to conduct a study into the bystander effect in 1968. There experiments revealed that people were less likely to help a person supposedly in distress when there were other people around than they were when they were alone with the distressed person.

In fact, the more bystanders that are present, the less likely it becomes that anyone will help. Social psychologists are still trying to figure out the complete picture of why this happens.

Darley and Latané came to the conclusion that feelings of responsibility play a major role. People process responsibility in their minds in between identifying an emergency and actually intervening. Darley and Latané came up with the term diffusion of responsibility which seems to happen when numerous bystanders are present. When there is a crowd, people feel less responsible to intervene because somebody else could do it.

Darley and Latané also determined that these feelings of responsibility are influenced by several factors:

  • First, is a judgement about whether or not a person deserves help. Many would not intervene to help somebody being arrested by the police, although it has happened.
  • Second, a person considers their own competence to help a bystander. Do they believe they are strong enough to stop a fight or do they have the medical knowledge to help the person?
  • Third, the relationship between the bystander and the victim affects the outcome. Mothers are more likely to rescue their own children than a stranger is to come to the aid of another stranger.

Milgram, who also did a well-known study about obedience to authority involving electrical shocks, thought that bystander apathy might be the result of information overload. Someone in distress doesn't automatically trigger the mind to take action.

Examples from cultures as diverse as the United States and China have been mentioned. Studies have also shown that personality and a person's socioeconomic status has no effect on the bystander effect.

Whatever the reasons, the bystander effect seems to override empathy.

One thing that does seems to reduce the bystander effect is information. If the victim can relay more information to bystanders they are more likely to intervene. So if you are in need of help, instead of just calling for help you need to specify what is happening to you. This seems to clarify the situation.

For example "Help me, I'm being murdered!" would be more effective than a scream, although it is unlikely a person in this situation would be thinking that clearly.

Some countries have taken a legal stand against the bystander effect. In Quebec and Brazil it is considered a crime to not come to the aid of someone who is injured. And even in countries where this isn't a law, sometimes people still come to the rescue:

Motorcyclist Rescued in Utah by Bystanders

Examples of the Bystander Effect

Instances of the bystander effect often make their way into the media as the sad opposite of a story of heroism. For instance, Esmin Green died in a hospital waiting room while waiting for care. The 48 year old woman was ignored by hospital staff and other patients. After not receiving help for 24 hours in the Brooklyn waiting room, the woman collapsed on the floor. A janitor was even caught mopping around her.

In China in 2011, a young Chinese girl named Wang Yue was struck by a vehicle and lay in the road while the crowd continued to flow around her. She was only two year olds. Because she was not moved to safety, she was struck by another vehicle. A man finally picked her up and sought help, but it was too late. She died soon after the incident.

Hopefully an awareness of the bystander effect will lead people to intervene more quickly if they are ever in a situation like this.


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    • rose-the planner profile image

      rose-the planner 4 years ago from Toronto, Ontario-Canada

      A very insightful article! I think that depending on the situation, it may be more of a fear factor rather than apathy which prohibits people from getting involved. Such as in the situation of Kitty Genovese being murdered or if someone is being robbed. Perhaps it is the fear of being in the spotlight, perhaps the fear of repercussions, who knows. However, in the case of the 2 year old in China, it is unbelievable that someone didn't help, in this case it was apathy. It is extremely frightening to think that no one would help me if I were in distress! Whatever happened to the Good Samaritan? Great article! Thank you for sharing. (Voted Up)


    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK

      I think you see this more and more these days -I had the misfortune to be harrassed by some nutcase on the bus home and nobody came to help me. I have been in town before when someone has been being beaten up and people turn away because they fear for their own safety - this is maybe the world today? It's hearbreaking to think that someone did not step in to save the lives of others though.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 4 years ago from sunny Florida

      This is a troubling phenomenon. I have not been faced with it yet so cannot say how I would react. I am hopeful that I would step up to the plate...I think I would but I cannot say positively that I would.

      There have been some cases where strangers have stepped up to the plate and have been chastised for it or screamed at by the one they were trying to help. You just never know what may come of it.

      I can only say that if I were the stranger in need I would hope someone passerby would at least call 911 if nothing else.

      Voted up ++++ and shared. Angels are on the way to you and to all who may be in need of a helping hand because of an emergency. ps