Understanding the Bystander Effect
Fri, December 3, 2021

Understanding the Bystander Effect

The bystander effect attempts to explain why someone witnessing a crime does not help the victim. The phenomenon was also used by the media as a parable of a morally bankrupt modern society losing its compassion for others / Photo by: Katarzyna Białasiewicz via 123RF

 

On March 13, 1964, Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was brutally murdered outside of her Queens apartment in New York City. She was stabbed 14 times in an incident that lasted around 30 minutes. Her death was considered one of the most popular murder cases to come out of NYC and into the national spotlight. However, the crime and the investigation were not the only factors that gained international attention. It’s the fact that 38 bystanders turned their back on Genovese’s early morning cries for help and shut their doors to silence her screams,

It was reported that the attack started at around 2:30 AM when a man named Winston Moseley grabbed her and stabbed her while she screamed. While her neighbor’s scream, Robert Mozer, caused the attacker to flee, it wasn’t enough to stop the crime. Mozer came back, stabbed Genovese once again – who was seriously injured – raped her, and stole her money. Another neighbor finally called the police but it was too late to save the victim’s life.

The case caught the attention of the public and experts, particularly psychological scientists, leading to research on the “bystander effect.” The bystander effect attempts to explain why someone witnessing a crime does not help the victim. The phenomenon was also used by the media as a parable of a morally bankrupt modern society losing its compassion for others. The story of Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax, a homeless 31-year-old Guatemalan immigrant, is an example of this. 

According to The Guardian, in 2010, Tale-Yax saved a woman who was being attacked, but not before being stabbed multiple times himself. He lay dying in a pool of his own blood for more than an hour while people walked by. One recorded a video of the entire event while someone even shook his body and then left. It took more than an hour for police to arrive and, by that time, Tale-Yax was already dead. 

Understanding the Bystander Effect

The bystander effect was first introduced by psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley. In their clinical experiments, they discovered that witnesses are less likely to help a crime victim if there are other witnesses. The more witnesses, the less likely a person will intervene. 

One experiment involved a single person sitting alone in a room filling with smoke. They would then repeat the same scenario with three people present. According to VeryWell Mind, a trusted and compassionate online resource that provides guidance for mental health, 75% of the participants who were alone reported the smoke to the experimenters. Meanwhile, only 38% of participants in a room with two other people reported the smoke. 

The researchers reported that a bystander progresses through a five-step decision-making process before helping a crime victim. They must first notice that something is inappropriate, define the situation as a circumstance requiring assistance or an emergency, decide whether the victim is personally responsible to act, think about how to help, and finally decide on a way to help. Failing to do all these things leads a bystander to not engage in the crime or situation. Some factors that can influence the bystander’s decision to help or not include their emotional state, the nature of the emergency, and the presence of others. 

The bystander effect was first introduced by psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley. In their clinical experiments, they discovered that witnesses are less likely to help a crime victim if there are other witnesses / Photo by: Artem Konovalov via 123RF

 

Research has revealed that the presence of other people creates a diffusion of responsibility for the bystander. This explains why they tend to not intervene in a certain crime because they don’t feel as much pressure to take action. They feel that the responsibility to take action is to be shared among all of those present. Aside from that, they usually wonder if it's even appropriate to intervene. 

Previous studies have shown that onlookers are less likely to intervene if the situation is ambiguous. For instance, bystanders tend to not interpret the situation as urgent when other people act calmly in the presence of a potential emergency. Thus, they act as if nothing is wrong. This behavior can also make other onlookers conclude that no action is needed, a phenomenon known as pluralistic ignorance. 

However, when people seem distressed or shocked, bystanders are more likely to realize an emergency has occurred and conclude that assistance is needed. It has also been found that people who are feeling good about themselves are more likely to lend assistance. Even small events can trigger such feelings.

Is the Bystander Effect Real?

The psychology profession used to believe that the bystander effect is a common issue or scenario. However, new research suggests otherwise. Earlier this year, researcher Richard Philpot at Lancaster University in the UK and his team revealed that the phenomenon might not be real. 

According to New Scientist, a weekly English-language magazine that covers all aspects of science and technology, the researchers looked at surveillance footage of violent situations in the UK, South Africa, and the Netherlands. They discovered that at least one person in 90% of the cases intervened and tried to help. They concluded that the presence of bystanders had increased the probability that someone would intervene, which is entirely the opposite of what the theory of the bystander effect would predict.

“The more people around, the greater the number of people who have the potential or the willingness to do something,” Philpot said. 

Nonetheless, it’s important that we are knowledgeable enough to intervene, whether or not we are alone, and especially when someone needs our help.