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"To Help or Not to Help"

Updated on February 27, 2014

There are many thoughts that run through our heads when we are placed in an uncomfortable situation. For example, when we see someone who may be in danger, we try to figure it out in our brains whether or not we should help them. However, it has been found that our brains are not the only things that play a role in our decision to help others. Many psychological studies have shown that if someone is a witness to an emergency, their incentive to intervene is correlated with the number of any other bystanders who also witness the emergency. The article that we are about to analyze, “To Help or Not to Help” by Roger Hock, builds off of the tragic death of Kitty Genovese, whose murder was witnessed by some 38 bystanders who did nothing to stop her death. This attack fueled psychologists to study what psychological forces may have prevented those witnesses to intervene. Furthermore, the article by Hock focuses on the link between the number of witnesses watching an emergency and the number of people who take action or try to help.

Hock’s article focuses on the psychological studies that were conducted after Genovese’s death to understand what psychological forces may have prevented those witnesses to intervene. The main study it centers on, conducted by John Darley of New York University and Bibb Latane of Columbia University, has been one of the most well-known studies that tackles the issue of the bystander effect, or what they have termed “bystander intervention” (Hock, 2009, p. 301). In their analysis of Kitty Genovese’s murder, they argued that the large number of witnesses of her death lowered the incentive of anyone to intervene. Darley and Latane’s research was centered around what they call “diffusion of responsibility” and that this was the reason behind the lack of assistance to Genovese. This means that as the number of witnesses in an emergency increases, the responsibility felt on their part decreases.

To test their hypothesis of diffusion of responsibility, Darley and Latane conducted an experiment that sought to observe to reactions of bystanders in an emergency. They used psychology students from NYU as participants, telling them they wanted to study the adjustment to life in college and the problems students have encountered. They were put in separate rooms and were asked to discuss their problems with other students over an intercom system. More importantly, we must acknowledge that the participants were divided into different situations. For example, there were three different groups. The first group of students thought they were speaking with only one person over the intercom. Group two thought there would be two other people on the line, and group three thought that five others were on the intercom. In all actuality, the participants were alone on the intercom, and the “student” they thought they were speaking to was merely a voice that was previously recorded. Darley and Latane then created the emergency by making the person on the recording simulate a seizure. This would force the students to believe that whoever they were speaking to on the intercom was having a real emergency, and Darley and Latane did this to observe the reactions of the participants and how those reactions differed among the groups. With this, they wanted to measure how long it would take each participant to respond and get help and how that correlated with which group they were in.

Roger Hock
Roger Hock | Source

The results that Darley and Latane found clearly supported their hypothesis. In Hock’s words, “as the number of others that participants believed were part of the study increased, the percentage who reported the seizure quickly, decreased dramatically” (Hock, 2009, p. 303). In other words, there was a greater delay in acquiring help with a greater number of believed bystanders. It was concluded that social influence played a large role in the study, being that psychologically, your behavior is naturally altered when others are present in a situation.

The findings of the study conducted by Darley and Latane imply that as the number in a certain group increased, the participants assumed less responsibility to intervene. We feel less guilt if we do not act in a serious situation if we know there are others involved. However, if you are knowingly the only person available to intervene in a given emergency, you will assume more responsibility and more guilt if you do not help. Darley and Latane also concluded that another role that plays a part in our decision to help others is the fear of being embarrassed if there was actually no emergency. This is a key aspect in understanding diffusion of responsibility. We worry most of the time about how we are being perceived by others, so our fear of being ridiculed in a given situation has very much to do with our reluctance to act in an emergency.

Subsequent findings that have followed Darley and Latane’s study further supports their original hypothesis on the diffusion of responsibility. They conducted another experiment which also involved psychology students as participants. They were placed in a room after volunteering to be included in interviews that involved discussing the issues that come with attending an urban university. After a few minutes of being in the room, the experimenters had smoke come through the vents. Again, there were groups in which the participant was alone in the room, or there were multiple participants in the room at a time. Once again, Darley and Latane’s findings were supported when they found 55% of participants who were alone report the smoke within the first 2 minutes, compared to the 12% of the other groups. Another study that confirms the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility had to do with the effects of our imaginations. Researchers in this study, which included Darley, found that simply “imagining being in a group changed helping behavior” (Hock, 2009, p. 308). Participants in the study were asked to imagine they were in a large group of people or with just one person. then they were asked to donate money to a charity, and, not surprisingly, the participants who imagined being in a group of others donated much less money than those who imagined themselves with one other person. In conclusion, the findings of this study show that when we are in a group, we automatically assume less responsibility in a given situation.

The Bystander Effect
The Bystander Effect | Source

The findings of Darley and Latane have been a key in understanding what goes through the minds of people who are caught in an emergency. There is no doubt that the presence of others clearly affects the way we behave in a given situation. This research confirms that, as does subsequent research that has followed it. However, if there were participants of different ranks in their study, their results may have been partially altered. Instead of conducting experiments with just students, maybe if a doctor, off-duty policeman, or any person other than a student were involved, there may have been a change in the diffusion of responsibility. However, the results would most likely reach the same conclusion that we feel less responsibility in a situation when others are present. Therefore, we can conclude that the work of Darley and Latane suffices in helping us understand the social factors that alter our behavior in emergencies.


  • Hock, Roger R. (2009). Forty Studies that Changed Psychology: Explorations into the History of Psychological Research


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