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Bystander Effect

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The term bystander effect refers to an event where with the presence of a greater number of people, the likelihood of people helping a person in need reduces. When an emergency occurs, witnesses are more likely to take action if there are few or no other witnesses at all.

What Is The Bystander Effect?

The bystander effect is a social psychology phenomenon which refers to a situation that occurs when the presence of others stops an individual from intruding in an emergency, such as against a bully, or during an assault or other crime. In fact, the larger the number of bystanders, the lesser becomes the chances for any one of them to help a person in distress. Also, such individuals are more likely to take action in a crisis when there are few or no other witnesses present.

”The bystander effect (also known as bystander apathy) is a term in the sphere of psychology that applies to the human tendency of taking no action in an emergency when others are present in the scene” explains Mind Help.

Understanding The Bystander Effect

This phenomenon is highly studied in the field of sociology and social psychology which states that individuals tend to ignore acting actively in an emergency when passive bystanders are present. According to a study, in 1968, John Darley and Bibb Latane (social psychologists) were the first to demonstrate the bystander effect through a laboratory experiment.

The researchers ran a simple study where a subject was placed alone in a room and was told that he could communicate with other subjects through an intercom. In reality, he was listening to an audio recording and was told his microphone will be off until it is his turn to speak. During the recording, a person assigned by the researchers started pretending that they were having a seizure. The study revealed that the duration the subject waited before informing the researchers varies inversely with the number of other people in that situation. In some cases, the subject never informed the researchers about the emergency at all.

Thus, the experiment showed that people tend to help more when alone than in a group. Additionally, according to the U.S. Department of Justice 1 , a bystander is present at 70 percent of assaults and 52 percent of robberies. It must be noted that the percentage of people who help a victim is determined by the type of crime scene, the environment, and other key variables. The effect can occur with many types of violent and nonviolent crimes such as bullying, drunk driving, cyberbullying, and societal issues such as damage to property or the environment.

Bystander Effect At A Glance

  1. The bystander effect refers to the human tendency of taking no action in an emergency when others are present in the scene.
  2. This phenomenon states that individuals tend to ignore acting actively in an emergency when passive bystanders are present.
  3. It must be noted at any point of this decision-making process, the bystander can go back to previous decisions as it is not a linear decision process.
  4. We are blessed with the ability to help others, to overcome the bystander effect.

The Kitty Genovese Case

While the implications for this theory have been studied by a variety of researchers, the initial interest arose after the brutal murder of Catherine Genovese in 1964. A 2014 study narrates the murder case of a 28-year-old, young woman, Catherine “Kitty” Genovese, which is most frequently cited as an example of the bystander effect. On March 13, 1964, young Genovese was returning home from work. As she advanced her apartment entrance, she was attacked and stabbed by a man who was later identified as Winston Moseley.

Despite Genovese’s repeated calls for help, none of the 38 neighbors showed up to help her or called the police to report the incident. The attack had begun at 3:20 AM, but it was not until 3:50 AM that someone first contacted the police. The neighbors’ inaction was so obscure that New York Times Editor A.M. Rosenthal was moved to write his classic book, “Thirty-Eight Witnesses,” which changed Kitty’s tragedy from an unreported incident to a front-page headline around the world, which still impacts our society a half-century later.

How The Bystander Effect Works?

In 1964, the story surrounding Kitty Genovese’s murder was shocking enough to receive national media coverage. While one can consider this to be an isolated incident, less extreme examples happen every day. A simple example would be people not stopping to help someone who is struggling with a flat tire in the middle of the road. ”Although explanations for nonresponse such as apathy, habituation, and fear of reprisal can legitimately be posited in such emergencies, the unifying theme ultimately seems to lie in the social psychological phenomenon of the bystander effect” says a 2004 study 2 .

The same study continues how Latané, Darley, and their students had conducted several experiments that offer evidence for this effect. For example, one study evaluated how people react to vague but potentially dangerous situations. In this study, male college students were kept in a setup where they believed that they were waiting to be interviewed about problems with urban life. While the students were filling out the preliminary forms, the room began to fill with stinging smoke. Participants who waited alone reported the smoke calmly, almost as soon as they noticed it. When the participants were in the presence of two confederates who were trained not to respond to the smoke, only 10% reported the problem before the designated 6-min stopping point.

Surprisingly, however, when the participants waited with two other naive partners, response rates were still low. Additionally, when all three students were completely free to respond, the inaction of one prevented the other two from taking any action. Thus, Latané and Darley explained that this happens because each individual tries to ascertain the danger present in the situation simultaneously. In part, each individual does this by trying to learn how the others are interpreting the situation. Each, then, interprets the others’ reactions as calm rather than as confusion. Therefore, individual attempts to disambiguate the location actually serve as social cues that hinder the behaviors of others.

The Bystander Decision-Making Process

The Bystander Decision-Making Process
Bystander Effect


Through these and other studies, Latané and Darley (1970) proposed a five-step decision model 3 of helping, during each of which bystanders can decide to do nothing. These are as follows:

  • Mark the event (or in a hurry and not notice).
  • Evaluate the situation as an emergency (or believe that as others are not acting, it is not an emergency).
  • Consider responsibility (or assume that others will do this).
  • Know what to do (or not have the skills necessary to help).
  • Decide to help (or worry about risk, enactment, humiliation, etc.).

It must be noted at any point of this decision-making process, the bystander can go back to previous decisions as it is not a linear decision process. Also, decisions can reshape when one stage of the decision cannot be decided upon. In addition, the slow response will often lead to inaction altogether. The longer bystanders wait to respond, the less likely they are to ever actually respond.

Four mechanisms seem to contribute to this phenomenon, as explained by Latané & Darley.

1. Self-Awareness

The anticipated presence of an individual in his or her actions hinders the person from acting. He or she does not want to appear silly or inappropriate in front of others.

2. Social Cues

Individuals actively look at one another for suggestions about how to behave in the situation. However, the inaction of others will likely result in the inaction of the person. These social cues can interact with the other mechanisms to increase the effect.

3. Blocking

When many bystanders take action, the pressure often can become worse. The action or perceived or suspected action of one bystander effectively blocks others from taking action.

4. Diffuse Responsibility

In a condition where only a small percentage of the bystanders can take action, responsibility is distributed. Each individual feels he or she has only limited accountability for the negative consequences of inaction.

While the interaction between these four mechanisms is complex, separating them in this sequence provides a way to witness significant and striking behavior, in both emergency and non-emergency situations.

Understanding Diffusion Of Responsibility

When a witness of an incident is in a group, he/she assumes that others will take action. Additionally, the more the number of witnesses, it is less likely that the person will act. Thus, individual responsibility converts into group responsibility. In a 2006 study 4 , researchers discovered that when bystanders were alone, 75 percent helped when they thought a person was in trouble. However, when a group of six people was together, only 31 percent helped.

Thus, when in a group, the sense of responsibility of a person in a crisis situation often diminishes. This perceived loss of individuality is often linked with mob actions or disreputable killings. Common reasons for not helping the victim are:

  • Fear of personal risk and harm being too great
  • Feeling that one does not have the nerve or other qualities to help another
  • Believing that others are better fitted to help
  • Watching the responses of other witnesses and considering the situation to be not so serious as others don’t seem alarmed
  • Fear of becoming the target of aggression or bullying

However, one is more likely to help a victim if:

  • He/she knows the victim
  • He/she has received training in personal defense
  • He/she has medical training or experience
  • He/she has been a victim at one time
  • He/she considers the person is deserving of help

Other Variables That Influence Our Likelihood To Help

There are other variables that influence one’s attitude to help a person in distress and show altruistic behavior. Some of the other variables are:

1. Similarity

A person tends to help someone who is familiar or shares some similarity with the person, maybe in terms of gender, clothes, ethnicity, beliefs, etc.

2. Consequences

Here, when an individual fears the negative consequence of helping someone, he/she stepbacks from any intervention.

3. Environmental Familiarity

Individuals are more likely to intervene in situations in places that they are familiar with. This may be because the individual is well aware of the emergency exits or knows where to find help quickly.

How To Overcome The Bystander Effect?

While the bystander effect is a widespread phenomenon, fortunately, there are various measures to counter the bystander effect and avoid future Kitty Genovese situations. Here are a few strategies to use to foster ourselves in helping others.

1. Identify the Situation

One must identify the situation where the bystander effect may be present and be aware of the same. He/she must understand that every individual is a bystander. This way, when next time there will be any problem, one will be able to mark it, read it as an emergency, and understand responsibility more clearly.

2. Gaining Clear Ideas

One must review his/her theories about who deserves help. This can get tricky when someone understands that the victim is entirely responsible to bring unfortunate events upon himself/herself, like drug or alcohol addicts. While one is obliged to offer assistance to everybody in need, he/she must be aware of his/her own ideas and tendencies.

3. Learning How to Help

One must know how to help people in different situations. Seeing oneself as more equipped to give assistance increases the likelihood of that behavior.

4. Get an Assistance

If a person needs help to further help the victim, he/she must pick a particular person for the same. This evades the diffused responsibility phenomenon.

5. Be the Leader

If someone needs help, the person must be the one to take action. Once others see that somebody is intervening, they are more likely to start offering assistance as well.

Helping Others Reaps Benefits

It must be noted that we are blessed with the ability to help others, to overcome the bystander effect. In other words, get to know your neighbors and keep an eye out for their well-being. Communicate with a coworker who looks tired or distressed. Listen and learn people’s stories and become a volunteer. Ultimately, by helping others, we benefit ourselves. In fact, when we do good things for others, it activates the part of our brain responsible for our reward system and activity reduces the areas in our brain linked to stress.

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References:
  1. Planty, M. (2002). Third-Party Involvement in Violent Crime, 1993-99. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/tpivc99.pdf []
  2. Hudson, J. M., & Bruckman, A. S. (2004). The bystander effect: A lens for understanding patterns of participation. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13(2), 165-195. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327809jls1302_2 []
  3. Emeghara, U. (2020). Bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility. []
  4. Marsh, J., & Keltner, D. (2006). We are all bystanders. Greater Good. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/we_are_all_bystanders/ []