The Bystander Effect

The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon that occurs when individuals fail to offer help in an emergency situation when there are other people present. With the bystander effect, the probability that someone will offer help is inversely related to the number of bystanders – the more people present, the less likelihood someone will help.

The Origin of the Bystander Effect

This social phenomenon has probably been around since the dawn of time, but the concept was popularized in the 1960s by social psychologists, Bibb Latane and John Darley. It took a tragedy for the concept to be recognized.

In the early morning hours of March 13, 1964, Kitty Genovese parked her red Fiat in a parking lot and began walking to her apartment in Kew Gardens, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. She heard footsteps behind her and tried to run, but she was caught by an attacker, knocked to the ground, and stabbed two times. Someone from a nearby building yelled out, “Leave that girl alone.” The man ran. The wounds were not fatal. Someone called the police, and many others heard the commotion. However, when the attacker sensed that no help was imminent, he returned, stabbing her several more times, and raping her before fleeing.

This gruesome crime became legend when the New York Times erroneously reported that 38 of Kitty’s neighbor’s had witnessed the attacked and had chosen to do nothing. Life magazine followed up with a story and the legend spread around the country about the neighbors who wouldn’t lend a hand to someone in trouble.

Though many of the reports of bystander apathy were exaggerated in the Kitty Genovese case (a few people did try to help or call the police), it is believed that many onlookers concluded that the inaction of others meant that no help was needed. This led to the popularization of the bystander effect.

How to Overcome the Bystander Effect

Though the bystander effect has negative implications for social behavior, there are many instances where average people turn into heroes in a time of crisis. Researchers have identified different things that help people overcome the bystander effect, and increase the chances that they will engage in behavior, heroic or otherwise, that helps others in a time of emergency.

Being Observant

People often walk around as if in a fog, and it is even worse in the 21st century, as people walk the streets with eyes glued to their phones. One of the biggest reasons people fail to help others is that they do not notice emergencies until it is too late. By being observant, individuals are more likely to see a need while they can still offer assistance.

Not Relying on the Actions of Others

In one famous experiment, conducted by Latane and Darley in the 1960s, Columbia students were asked to participate in a study about urban life. However, this was just a cover for the real reason for the study. As the students sat in a room, smoke began to enter through a small vent. In the first study, only one student was in the room at a time. In this case, each student investigated the smoke and eventually went out into the hallway to inform someone of the problem. In the second study, two or three students were in the room together, but the extra students were part of the study and told not to react to the smoke. In this case, only one of ten students reported the smoke. They observed the inaction of the others and decided to do nothing about something that they thought was wrong. If people can make their own observations, and not rely on others, they will be more likely to help.

Watching Others Help

Just as people didn’t act when they saw others act, it often help to spur action just by witnessing others take action. Researchers have found that when individuals see others engage in prosocial behavior, such as altruism and heroism, they are more likely to act in the same way.

Knowing What to Do in an Emergency

People who have been trained, or who have some basic knowledge of emergency situations will be more likely to help. Not everyone can be an EMT, a nurse, or a doctor, but taking first aid classes and learning CPR could help people feel more confident if an emergency situation arises.

Personal Relationships

It seems obvious that we are more likely to help people who we know personally. But, this doesn’t mean that someone needs to be a family member, friend, or co-worker. Just a few small gestures can turn complete strangers into people who we feel we know. Making eye contact, expressing a greeting, or engaging in small talk all help us to feel more familiar with the people around us. This familiarity might also help if you are in an emergency situation – make eye contact or make a direct plea to a specific person and that individual may be more likely to help.

Seeing Others as Deserving of Help

Would you be more likely to give money to a stranger if you thought his wallet was stolen or if you thought he had just spent his last dime? In one famous study, participants were found to be more likely to give money to a stranger if they thought his wallet had been stolen, This attitude can help explain why one person may pass a homeless person on the street without even a care, while the next person will stop and give him some change or a few dollars. If you are more likely to believe that people are homeless because they are lazy or unwilling to work, then you will be more likely to walk past; if you think the homeless are deserving of help due to specific circumstances or issues, you will likely drop a few coins into the cup.

Feel Good Do Good

Everyone wants to feel good about themselves, and the better you feel about yourself, the more likely you are to lend assistance to someone in need. People who are successful or those who tend to have a sunnier disposition are more likely to offer help. Even people who have had a good day may be more likely to lend a hand than people who have experienced a bad day. This is known as the “feel good, do good” effect.

The bystander effect is well-documented; even children have shown in controlled studies that they are more likely to help when they are alone. The bystander effect is one of the more unfortunate aspects of human behavior. Whether it is possible to change this behavior, especially in children, is unknown. However, even a recent presidential report addresses the issue. In a 2014 meeting at the White House, President Obama announced a federal task force to address and combat rape on college campuses; a report was released emphasizing the need for men to help prevent rape and intervene if possible. The report reads: “Bystanders must be taught and emboldened to step in and stop it.”

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