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The Bystander Problem

Updated on September 19, 2014

People ignore cries to help their fellow "Man" - stunning

The headlines are unbelievable, the video is stunning!

A man comes across a woman being mugged, gets stabbed repeatedly in the chest coming to her aid, then lies dying on the sidewalk for over an hour and a half while people walk past in ... in New York!

What is so unbelievable is that up to 20 people walked past him, some paused to stare at him and one even took a cell phone picture of him as he lay dying! Couldn't one of them have dialed 9-1-1 so as to get some medical assistance for the man? Couldn't the woman he rescued have called police to report the foiled mugging and secured assistance for her rescuer?

And just recently in Toronto, a similar case. A 66 year old woman with Alzeimers wanders out of the house around 2 am in -20° C weather. The RCMP investigation reveals that neighbours heard screams around 2 am but didn't report them. A newspaper delivery woman found the elderly woman around 5:30 am, with no pulse. Subsequent attempts at CPR were unsuccessful.

The only answer I can find is the "Bystander Problem" described in "The Tipping Point". While the "Bystander Problem" may provide an explanation as to why no one took the initiative to call for assistance, it doesn't absolve any of them for not doing so.

Samaritan Stabbed

Headline: "Passersby ignore dying New York homeless man stabbed after saving woman"

News Stories document tragedy

The news story in the The New York Post (see below) is an example of a number of stories, in newspapers, TV News, blogs, etc., describing an incident on or about April 24, 2010 in New York.

Briefly, a homeless man came upon a woman being mugged and stepped in to assist. The incident occurred just out of the field of view of a surveillance camera, which shows the man moving off screen, then staggering back in to view where he subsequently collapses.

What makes the tragedy so unbelievable is the fact that he lay on the sidewalk for over an hour and a half, bleeding to death, while people walked by.

"In the wake of the bloodshed, a man came out of a nearby building and chillingly took a mobile phone photo of the victim before leaving.

In several instances, pairs of people gawked at Tale-Yax without doing anything.

Later, another man stopped, leaned over and vigorously shook Tale-Yax's body. After lifting the victim's head and body to reveal a pool of blood, he also walked off."

One wonders how up to 20, presumably civilized, people could wander by a man dying on the sidewalk and not render some assistance, even if only to call 9-1-1. What about the woman being mugged? Wouldn't she call the police to report the attempted mugging, .. the injured man who assisted her?

I find this to be stunningly unbelievable, however, there was, apparently, a similar situation in Queens in 1964. Subsequent research by psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley resulted in identifying the "Bystander Problem".

A 66-year-old Womna Dies in Driveway in Bitter Cold

Neighbours Hear Screams - Do Nothing!

In another case, in Toronto, a 66-year-old woman died in a respectable neighbourhood after wandering out of the house around 2 am in -20° C weather. The woman, who may have suffered from Alzeimers, appears to have tried to get back into the house (as evidenced by scratch marks on the door) and tried to get herself off the driveway (as evidenced by finger marks on the car).

As with the previous story, neighbours apparently heard her screams but no one reported them to the police for investigation. As a result, the woman died of hypothermia in a driveway in a respectable neighbourhood.

If you didn't read the news story, would you have believed it could happen?

"The Tipping Point"

by Malcolm Gladwell

I found the following reference in Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" describing a similar situation in which thirty-eight witnesses watched and did nothing as Kitty Genovese was attacked and killed over half an hour.

While I find these situations unbelievable and hope I would act in a similar situation, one has to wonder. You never know what you will do in a given situation until it occurs. But I hope that if I were to come across someone injured and requiring assistance, I would take action.

The Bystander Problem

A Famous Example

The following is quoted from Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point":

"One of the most famous incidents in New York City history, for example, was the 1964 stabbing death of a young Queens woman by the name of Kitty Genovese. Genovese was chased by her assailant and attacked three times on the street, over the course of half an hour, as thirty-eight of her neighbors watched from their windows. During that time, however, none of the thirty-eight witnesses called the police. The case provoked rounds of self-recrimination. It became symbolic of the cold and dehumanizing effects of urban life. Abe Rosenthal, who would later become editor of the New York Times, wrote in a book about the case:

Nobody can say why the thirty-eight did not lift the phone while Miss Genovese was being attacked, since they cannot say themselves. It can be assumed, however, that their apathy was indeed one of the big-city variety. It is almost a matter of psychological survival, if one is surrounded and pressed by millions of people, to prevent them from constantly impinging on you, and the only way to do this is to ignore them as often as possible. Indifference to one's neighbor and his troubles is a conditioned reflex in life in New York as it is in other big cities.

This is the kind of environmental explanation that makes intuitive sense to us. The anonymity and alienation of big-city life makes people hard and unfeeling. The truth about Genovese, however, turns out to be a little more complicated - and more interesting."

The "Bystander Problem"

Human Studies

The "Bystander Problem"

Human Studies

"Two New York City psychologists - Bibb Latane of Columbia University and John Darley of New York University - subsequently conducted a series of studies to try to understand what they dubbed the "bystander problem". They staged emergencies of one kind or another in different situation in order to see who would come and help. What they found, surprisingly, was that the one factor above all else that predicted helping behaviour was how many witnesses there were to the event. ...

When people are in a group, in other words, responsibility for acting is diffused. They assume that someone else will make the call, or they assume that because no one else is acting, the apparent problem ... isn't really a problem. In the case of Kitty Genovese, then, social psychologists like Latane and Darley argue, the lesson is not that no one called despite the fact that thirty-eight people heard her scream; it's that no called because thirty-eight people heard her scream.


Psychologists have, apparently, offered an explanation as to why such situations, as stunning and unbelievable as they are, might occur. While it might be possible to rationalize how it might occur, it doesn't absolve the 20 people who walked by of their responsibility to act, if only to call 9-1-1.

While it may be a result of big city indifference, we still believe ourselves to be civilized and to act towards others in a humanitarian manner. In my mind, this incident casts doubt on the extent to which we are civilized and that our humanitarian sentiments are precious only when we don't have to get personally involved.

Chances are that none of the people reading this were one of the infamous "20", however, they were representatives for all of us at that time and place. Can we be absolutely confident that we would not have acted in exactly the same way?

The Tipping Point - by Malcolm Gladwell

Another very interesting book by Malcolm Gadwell.

I found Malcolm Gadwell's "The Tipping Point" to be a very interesting book on the small effects which trigger large cultural phenomena. In the book, Mr. Gladwell discusses a case of Gonorrhea in Colorado, Hush Puppies and the incident with Kitty Genovese in New York as examples of group psychology.

We may have beliefs regarding how we would expect ourselves to behave in a given situation, however, group psychology may govern our behaviour in an entirely different manner.

"The Tipping Point" was well worth reading.

Would you have offered assistance?

Unfortunately, we can never know how we will respond to, and act in, any given situation. We would like to think of ourselves as heroes, pillars of society ... as Good Samaritans.

I find it stunning that of 20 people, none thought to offer assistance to a man bleeding on a sidewalk. One even took a cell phone picture rather than use the cell phone to call for help!

For a civilized society concerned with Human Rights, Civil Liberties, etc., it speaks poorly of our society in that those 20 people, as representatives of us at that time and place, chose not to act.

What do you think of this story and the "Bystander Problem"?

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I am stunned and in a state of disbelief that such a situation could occur in the middle of a First World country, where police and medical assistance are only a phone call away. I am stunned that the woman being mugged wouldn't call for assistance for her rescuer. I am stunned that 20 people would not only walk by, but even take photographs

What do you think?.

What A Commentary on our CIVILIZED Society!

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    • FanfrelucheHubs profile image

      Nathalie Roy 

      8 years ago from France (Canadian expat)

      It is scary to read. Since I am in France I hear lots of story about people not getting involved. Here there is a strange culture of not getting involved. In Canada if a neighbor gets too loud with the music at 11 pm, we go see him or call the they just stand there and do nothing (of course there is some exception, but not many). In the poor neighbor , the gangs ran loose because no one talk to the police, they say it is none of their business if these gangs make the rules.

      My mother in law explain to me that in France denunciation is taboo, so we end up with situations I never saw in Canada. And I find it quite unsettling.

      A few weeks ago an old lady was trapped 3 WEEKS in her bathroom in an apartment building...she has been crying for help, doing noise at night to get one moved!!!!! Her neighbor were annoyed at the noise, but no one even bother checking out what was happening!!!! I knew that If I heard noise at night I would go bang on the door or call the police...

    • Dynamic1 LM profile imageAUTHOR

      Dynamic1 LM 

      8 years ago

      @LisaAuch1: GOOD FOR YOU.

      However, one of the concrns I have, personally, with groups of young people are the incidents for "swarming attacks". There have been several instances in BC where not just one, but an entire group of young people will participate in an attack on an individual or a smaller group.

      It is, I believe, a cultural manifestation of the "Not my fault" syndrome in today's society. There is an attitude of a lack of responsibility for one's actions. "I am not at fault because my family is dysfunctional, my gneder, my race, may background, my social status (or lack thereof), etc, etc, ad nauseum.

      It is gratifying that your actions led to the clean up of the broken glass and that your "Thank you" resulted in a nice chat with the young man by way of positive reinforcement.

      Once again, Good for you!

    • LisaAuch1 profile image

      Lisa Auch 

      8 years ago from Scotland

      Recently whilst out walking, with our daugher, and two dogs,in the local "national" park. We came accross a young crowd, who were fooling around by the waters edge, one of the young men threw a glass bottle into the air sending, glass everywhere, it was hot and our dogs were thirsty and would usually have went in for a drink. I was angry at this, however was more angry at no-one saying anything but stood watching them laughing. Lots of peope who witnessed it walked off. As we approached, I loudly said to the young man, I hope he was going to pick this mess up, (my daughter was mortified!) as I wouldn't want him to be responsible for either my daughter or my dogs getting glass in their feet. The crowd laughed, and I though it better to just continue walking. On our return we were pleasantly surprised to find that someone had indeed cleared the glass up, later returning to the car, the young man was sitting on a wall, still with his friends, I boldly walked up and said "thankyou for doing that". And they started to chat away about the dogs. Actually very nice young people , he apologised again, and knew it was wrong. (they were ages 12-13ish) It is such a shame in this day and age people WILL stand and pass by, because of the fear we have in Society. What a wonderful topic.

    • Dynamic1 LM profile imageAUTHOR

      Dynamic1 LM 

      8 years ago

      @Othercatt: What an idiot working as a 911 operator! You are entirely correct. If I were injured, I would rather have 6 people call in than have everyone assume that someone else had done so. Your actions speak well for you.

      Thanks for your comment.

    • Othercatt profile image


      8 years ago

      10 years ago I witnessed an accident involving an elderly woman. There were about 50 other people around but I still went to the nearest store and called 911. The 911 operator acted annoyed and said that 5 other people had already called it in. At first I felt like an idiot. And then I thought 'I'd rather be one of the 6 that reacted than one of the 44 that just stood there'.

    • Dynamic1 LM profile imageAUTHOR

      Dynamic1 LM 

      8 years ago

      @mythphile: I suggest those are subtle changes. Walking past a guy bleeding on a sidewalk and trying to pretend he is not there is blatant callousness.

      My main concern is what such incidents mean with regard to our humanity and our current trend toward individualism and selfishness. Courtesy is largely gone. Does anyone know what chivalry is? How many people will stop there car to allow a pedestrian to cross these days? How many people a day do you see running red lights, not just yellow lights?

      Collectively, what does these mean with regard to the current evolutionary direction of our culture, our society, our humanity?

    • mythphile profile image

      Ellen Brundige 

      8 years ago from California

      I have a story which may offer a few reasons.

      Two years ago, coming out of a baseball game, I saw a man lying next to a concrete curb with blood pouring out of his scalp. He was conscious, but dazed. Stadium personnel were standing close by, but doing nothing. Everyone else was walking by trying to avoid noticing.

      When I asked what was up, the security guards assured me an ambulance had been called.

      So, reason #1: Everyone assumes someone else is taking care of it. Twenty years ago, Douglas Adams in Hitchhiker's Guide termed it the "SOMEBODY ELSE'S PROBLEM" field, (SEP), which he jokingly had as the basis for a cloaking (invisibility) device.

      Reason #2? The security guards seemed to be uncomfortable, and I quickly surmised they were afraid of LAWSUITS. Good samaritans can get sued.

      I went into automatic mode. I had some lifeguard training about 20 years ago, mostly forgotten, but I at least know some basic first aid. We happened to have received fresh rally towels at the game. I wadded mine up and pressed it against the guy's scalp (he had tripped and hit a concrete curb), using pressure to slow down the blood, took his hand, and started talking to him to keep him conscious. I asked one of the security guards to get a bag of ice from a concession stand.

      I stayed with him until the ambulance arrived -- which took some time, as the stadium roads are packed at the end of a game.

      Afterwards, the friend with me commended me but said with great concern that I needed to get the blood off my hands. She was very worried about AIDs transmission. She works for a life/auto insurance company, and was thinking about safety -- she wasn't being hysterical.

      Also, let's face it, this guy was a portly Hispanic, and in my part of the country, they're suspected to be illegals and/or looked down on. Poor people, blacks, Hispanics --you know it. They're not your tribe. So a (perceived to be) homeless person might well get ignored.

      The sad thing is that I routinely hear from fans of my team's rival how rude and awful fans of my team are. People look down on anyone who's different.

      The woman who took a picture with her cellphone is the one that appalls me most. SEP is human nature... people almost unconsciously don't notice things that might inconvenience them. But she NOTICED, and chose to act -- selfishly, instead of selflessly.

    • Dynamic1 LM profile imageAUTHOR

      Dynamic1 LM 

      8 years ago

      @kimmie1967: I agree (as you can no doubt tell from the tone in my lens)! It is hard to believe such an incident could occur in a civilized city.

    • kimmie1967 profile image


      8 years ago

      When I first read this I was disgusted and still am about the way people acted in this situation. Of course we can never say how we will react to a situation until we are faced with it, but I would hope that I would be human enough to at least dial 9-1-1!

    • mythphile profile image

      Ellen Brundige 

      8 years ago from California

      Also, regarding the "urban alienation" theory -- that may be a big part of it.

      Remember the beginning of that old Harrison Ford movie, Witness, which starts with an Amish mother and her boy having to go into Philadelphia, and being weirded out by the city? Then the boy witnesses a murder.

      I grew up at the edge of Amish country, though I wasn't Amish. I felt like that, too, when I first went into Philadelphia in college: as if I were walking in some sort of strange, cold nightmare world. I felt it when i moved to Boston for a few years. There is something mindnumbing about cities. You have to turn yourself off from so much of the environment to think, to sleep, to function. There's noise. There's dirt. There's so many people. I found it incredibly draining, like being in a traffic jam all the time.

      To my horror, after a few years, I stopped noticing birdsong, unless I actively listened for it. There was a study done in Japan that showed Western minds perceive birdsong in the same part of the brain as traffic noise -- something that is filtered out. Japanese minds, at least 30 years ago, interpreted birdsong in the same part of the brain as language. I used to. I'm starting to again, after moving to a place with birds. I hear the hawk cry. I hear the crows. I recognize that escaped Mexican parrot. But I had to *turn my brain back on* to hear them.

      Another thing I remember vividly: I'd get funny looks playing field hockey, in school, because I'd look up whenever a plane flew overhead. Nobody else *heard the plane.* That sound just didn't register to them. Most of my classmates were suburban.

      That may be why I was the one who stopped and helped a stranger, when others didn't. Many urbanites have learned to filter out the sensory overload of an urban environment. They've had to learn to be less perceptive. That still doesn't explain why those who actively noticed the victim didn't call 911 though.

    • Dynamic1 LM profile imageAUTHOR

      Dynamic1 LM 

      8 years ago

      @GuyB LM: That's true, however, I don't think it is an acceptable rationale. Collectively, "We" are the ones that make the big cities cold, lonely and indifferent by our behaviour.

      It is terrible and difficult to understand, particularly the guy who took the picture with a cellphone and could have used that very same cellphone to call for assistance. What was the thinking on that one?!

    • Dynamic1 LM profile imageAUTHOR

      Dynamic1 LM 

      8 years ago

      @Kylyssa: My perspective on this incident was from the safety of my home. I have never been homeless and hope never to be so. To have your comments from the perspective of your former situation is very enlightening and very valuable. Thank you for your courage in sharing them!

    • GuyB LM profile image

      GuyB LM 

      8 years ago

      Life in the big city can be a cold lonely place. Terrible

    • Kylyssa profile image

      Kylyssa Shay 

      8 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      This is horrible. I think that the fact that he was homeless played into this. People in our society don't see homeless people as human. Last winter, one Manhattan "charity" advised people not to assist a homeless person (give first aid) if they appeared to be injured or incapacitated but instead to report them to the police. One "charity" for homeless people advised that people ought not give blankets or coats to homeless people because "they'll be too comfortable and not do anything to fix their situation" - as if a coat or blanket is going to make a homeless person so comfortable that the beatings and rapes and humiliations they experience wouldn't be bad enough for them to want off the street anymore! I'm sorry but I'll give first aid to anyone without first asking for proof of residence and I'll call an ambulance, not the police.

      With authority figures telling people not to help and society demonizing the victims of a crap economy, it's no surprise that no one helped this poor man. When I first read this story, I sat down and cried. When I was assaulted (multiple times) as a homeless person, the only people decent enough to help me were other homeless people, prostitutes, and a crack addict who interrupted a beating and saved me from another rape. No one who assaulted me was homeless. Not one.

    • Dynamic1 LM profile imageAUTHOR

      Dynamic1 LM 

      8 years ago

      @JonathanKhan: I agree that we are, by nature, self-centred. What really bothers me is that in a civilized, First World country having emergency assistance available through a single phone call and only minutes away, the people passing by him for an hour and a half DID NOTHING! What statement does that make for our collective humanity?

      Thanks for the feedback and comment!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I think that to the core most people are self centered. So self centered that in extreme situations this self centered behavior surfaces to our surprise. We need an infusion of compassion that wil spur us to act like a reflex action in these emergencies. Awesome lens man!!!! Keep it up !!!!!!


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