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Bystanders - Why Strangers Fail to Help

Updated on August 31, 2012

Bystanders Could Stop the Blood

When Bystanders Turn Thier Back on Victims

In 1964, Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death near her home in New York, while 38 neighbors did nothing to help her. In two separate aggressive attacks that spanned a period over half an hour, her assailant stabbed her multiple times, and raped her. Despite Kitty's cries for help, and her attempt to stumble away towards her apartment, no one came to her aid. While few people saw much of the early hours attack, many heard at least her initial cries for help. A made for TV Movie, Death Scream, was eventually made about the incident.

This example was all over the media at the time, and the common wisdom was that either New Yorkers, or people in general are callous, self centered or at best indifferent. Other similar incidents abound, including another murder in a nearby area 10 years later, near the same neighborhood. Does what happened to victims like Kitty tell us that our neighbors are not there for us? Psychologists have shed some light on these questions.

Diffusion of Resposibility/ Social Information

John Darley and Bibb Latané were the pioneers in this research to explain what came to be referred to as the Bystander Phenomenon. The theory that arose from their research explained the phenomena and was named Diffusion of Responsibility.

When it is obvious to the witness that several others could help -- in addition to you -- then you can more easily make excuses to yourself, for not helping. The thinking goes, that certainly someone else will help, or has already begun to help, who has more to contribute than I do.

Other explanations include a feminist accounting that explains it in terms of the lack of willingness by many to get involved with what they surmised was a domestic dispute. Another psychology theory, social influence, posits more of a herd phenomena, in which we take our cues from those around us, and since the crowd appeared to be doing nothing, that was the best course of action.

Implications When Strangers Fail to Help

Obviously we all need to be more alert to these situations and take pains to help. If you find yourself involved in an emergency, take on a leadership role assigning tasks to those around. If you are a victim, make your appeal more personal, like "you in the red shirt, call the police now!"

There are also implications for society. One idea is that businesses and other large organizations like governments, need to have a designated person, to turn to, that will make helping safer and more effective. An Ombudsman can serve that function.

Also, this phenomena may explain why people did too little to stop the holocaust, why bullies are tolerated at school, and how hate crimes and hate speech often succeed with out any confrontation from those who could most impact it.

However, I feel that this problem speaks most to the need for the development of smaller cells of coordinating neighbors, employees etc such as citizen watch groups. These can combat the sense of alienation that underlies some of these problems, and can make our communities, be they work sites, neighborhoods, military bases, or schools, more victim-friendly. The court system, which pay too little heed to the needs of victims and witnesses, needs to also explore innovative ways to empower the witness and the victim.

Photo Credits and Text References:

"American Scientist"; Bystander “apathy”; Darley, J.M and Latane, B.; 1969

Blood Splatter by Le Clan Brunet

Bystander Comments

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    • De Greek profile image

      De Greek 7 years ago from UK

      Poor Kitty Genovese ... some neighbours..

    • authorfriendly profile image

      authorfriendly 7 years ago from Charleston, SC


      In my day job I have to deal with bullies a lot, maybe it makes me more sensitive to these issues when they play out in the rest of life.

    • JayDeck profile image

      JayDeck 7 years ago from New Jersey

      I've explored this in my own life and writing. This is a good explanation of a troubling phenomenon.