Bystander Effect

What is the Bystander Effect?

The bystander effect otherwise referred to as bystander apathy (initially - Genovese syndrome) is when the presence of other people discourages a person from intervening and helping someone during an assault or any other emergency situation.

The term bystander effect was coined in 1964, after the brutal rape and subsequent murder of Kitty Genovese. According to a New York Times article, 38 people saw and/or heard the attack occur. However, none of the witnesses intervened or contacted law enforcement agencies despite the victim’s repeated calls for help because each individual relied on others to do it. Later, it was discovered that there were major inaccuracies in the article - it turned out that no evidence was found for the presence of thirty-eight witnesses; besides, some of them had actually made attempts to call the police.

Having investigated this topic, researchers concluded that such behavior is our brain’s response to fear. And this fear of risk is exactly what leads to passivity in challenging situations. The positive news is that such behavior patterns can be changed. If a person starts practicing courageous behaviors, these patterns will eventually become part of their identity.

Besides, not all people “freeze” during danger. A small percentage of individuals are able to withstand stressful situations while maintaining internal balance. If you want to find out what your response to stressful situations will most likely be, we suggest you take The Hardiness Test.

The Theory and the Experiments

The infamous Kitty Genovese murder prompted American social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané to study the phenomenon that first became known as Genovese syndrome and later, the bystander effect. The researchers conducted several experiments to better understand people's social behavior during emergencies.

One of their most famous experiments involved a simulated emergency situation recreated in a laboratory setting. Each individual participating in the study was put in a small room and told that they would be discussing some things with other participants of the experiment via an intercom system. At some point, though, one of the participants started having what sounded like an epileptic seizure. Over the intercom, those taking part in the experiment could hear desperate cries for help. In reality, there were no other people in other rooms. Those voices begging for help were nothing but recordings that were played back to simulate an emergency.

Before the experiment began, some participants were told that there was only one other person (the victim) participating in the discussion, while others were told that it included 2 other people. Yet others were told that 5 other individuals were involved. The likelihood that the participant left the room to help the person “having a seizure” decreased from 85% to 62% and 31%, respectively, as the number of “witnesses” increased.

That is how Darley and Latané came to the conclusion that the larger the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any of them will help an individual in need. The researchers described this phenomenon by the term diffusion of responsibility. Another study by Latané and Darley showed that not only the percentage of individuals taking action but also the amount of time it takes the subjects to start seeking help varies depending on how many other people are on the premise. During that experiment, the participants started filling out questionnaires in a room. All of a sudden, smoke began billowing into the room from the wall vent. In the first part of the study, the subject was alone. In the next part of it, three participants unaware of what was going on were in the room. And finally, one naive subject and two researchers’ assistants who pretended to be a normal participant took part in the last part of the experiment. The confederate noticed yet ignored the smoke (even when the premise became pretty hazy from smoke).

The results of the experiment were the following: 75% of the participants who were alone left the room to report the smoke as soon as they noticed it. Only 38% of the naive volunteers who were in the room in groups of 3 reported the smoke. And just 10% of the subjects who were in the room along with the confederates reported that something smoky was going on.

The explanation for it is that when someone is alone and encounters an emergency, they feel pressured to take action. And togetherness reduces that pressure (and fear),even when the danger is there. People in groups were clearly less afraid and thus less likely to act. Also, individuals sometimes are inhibited to show fear in a group situation. It’s human nature to play it cool. However, in post-experimental interviews, people explained that they didn't act immediately because they concluded the situation wasn’t that dangerous.

Here are the details of another famous experiment inspired by the Genovese case and sometimes referred to as Lady in Distress. All of the participants were males. The first group of volunteers was asked to stay in a room alone. The second group, with a friend. The third group had to stay in a room with an unresponsive confederate, and the last group, with another random participant they had never met before. The room was separated from an adjoining room only by a curtain. The female researcher who led the participants there returned to the other room and left, turning on a recording that simulated a fall and subsequent moaning about a horrible leg injury.

Overall, 61% of the subjects pulled back the curtain to check if the experimenter was okay. The bystanders who were alone and with a friend turned out to be the most helpful - 70% of them acted. Out of those who were in the room with another random participant, 40% helped the woman. Out of those who were with the confederate, only 7% intervened.

Later, the subjects who helped the woman claimed they acted because it was "the right thing to do” - the situation seemed serious. Those who decided not to intervene said they were unsure what happened but somehow decided it wasn't serious. Others said they didn't want to embarrass the experimenter. From this experiment, we can draw a conclusion that the risk of inappropriate behavior reduces when our friends are there. Seemingly, friends are less likely to show pluralistic ignorance.

Why Do People Become Bystanders In Emergency Situations?

The first main reason why people fail to help someone who is being bullied, assaulted, or needs any other help, is fear. The human brain and body’s normal response to fear caused by witnessing a horrifying event is usually freezing or going into shock. It can also be a fear of being too weak to help, of misunderstanding the context and seeing a threat where there is none, or putting oneself in harm's way. The second reason for such patterns is the human need to behave in socially acceptable ways. Psychologists call this fear of unfavorable public judgment when helping someone evaluation apprehension.

When other witnesses do not react to ongoing events in any way but just keep observing, most people often take this as a signal that no response is needed. Onlookers are more likely to refrain from stepping in if the situation is ambiguous, too. The belief that if no one else is helping, the situation is not actually an emergency is described by the term pluralistic ignorance.

Multiple studies have also shown grim statistics when it comes to sexual violence against women: male witnesses, especially if they hold sexist attitudes, or are in a drunken or drugged state, are less likely to help a woman who is being sexually assaulted. Low empathy in some individuals, no matter their gender, definitely plays its role here, too.

Is There Anything Positive About the Bystander Effect?

Surprisingly, yes, there is. People are more likely to do good things when they believe they are being observed by “the crowd”. For example, individuals who identify as environmentally friendly are more willing to recycle when they know they are being watched.

Recent research by the German psychologists Fischer and Greitemeyer has shown another interesting tendency. In a simulated bike theft with no physical victim present, one of the “bystanders” (who was a researcher’s confederate) intervened to prevent the felony. In the first part of the experiment, the bike thief looked fierce, and in the second part of it, much less so. The results of the study were the following: other passive bystanders did intervene actively when they saw someone trying to stop the “bad guy” from stealing the bike, and less actively when a helper tried to stop the thief who looked less fierce. Essentially, when negative consequences for the helper are more expected, more individuals tend to intervene more actively.

How Do I Overcome the Bystander Effect?

A wise person once said: “I always wondered why somebody doesn't do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody”. We believe the presence of other people shouldn’t stop anyone from helping the individual who found themselves in an emergency situation because helping behavior is a humanistic duty. Some people call it the positive bystander effect.

Below are listed the five steps that will help you overcome the negative bystander effect:

  • Notice the event. People are always busy/on their phones/unaware of their surroundings; some of them just don’t care to notice. Make a difference - pay attention to what is going on around you!
  • Ask yourself if you think it is an issue. Sometimes it is hard to tell if someone needs help. Do not be sidetracked by ambiguity and conformity. Investigate.
  • Take personal responsibility. Think to yourself: “If not me, then who?” Don’t assume other people will provide help to an individual in need. That person might die if you do not lend them a helping hand. So have the courage to be the first (and probably the only) person to help.
  • Identify how to help. Obviously, your personal safety comes first, so you should never put yourself in danger. But there is always something you can do! Help can be different - from calling out a bully to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or contacting the police.
  • Implement the help. Take action without hesitation!

Think about taking personal accountability for your actions, including helping someone in need, as a way to feel incredibly empowered. Plus, having accountability helps people foster even greater empathy and a sense of compassion for others.

What Do I Do if I Am In Need of Assistance?

The world we live in can be an unsafe place at times. Everyone could find themselves in a dangerous situation. That is why raising awareness about the bystander effect is so important.

So, imagine yourself in a threatening situation. Knowing that groups of people may be reluctant to help others, how can you “convince” someone to help you? If there is a crowd of people around you, one tactic that works is to single out one individual, make eye contact with that specific person, and ask them for help. Chances are high that one single person won’t turn you down.

Spread the information about the bystander effect and how to overcome it among people you know. This is how we can make the world a better place together.