What is the Bystander Effect?

Posted December 2019 by John Sherk, B.S.W., B.S. Bible; MDiv.; 7 updates since. Reading time: 7 min. Reading level: Grade 7+. Questions on bystander effect? Email Toni at: editor@online-psychology-degrees.org.

Imagine you find yourself in a crowded subway station. Someone comes rushing through carrying a pile of books. Suddenly, the trip, spill their books and hurt themselves. As they lie there in pain, they try to gather the books they’ve spilled alone. Do you think anyone would help? One person might, but in a packed subway station, most people go about their business.

This phenomenon has a name. It’s called the bystander effect. The bystander effect claims that people are less likely to help victims when other people are present. The more people present, the less likely anyone will help.

Background to the Bystander Effect Experiment

The bystander effect initially came to public attention following the famous “Bystander Apathy Experiment” or “Bystander Effect Experiment,” conducted by psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley. They orchestrated the experiment in response to the tragic 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City. On the night of March 13, a man named Winston Moseley stabbed Ms. Genovese outside of her apartment. She screamed in pain and a neighbor yelled at the criminal, causing him to flee the scene. Mr. Moseley returned several minutes later while Ms. Genovese remained alone on the ground, still conscious, trying to crawl her way back to the apartment. Mr. Moseley stabbed her several more times, stole her money, and sexually assaulted her. By the time police and an ambulance arrived, it was too late.

As many as 38 of Ms. Genovese’s neighbors heard her cries and knew she was being viciously attacked, yet none of them chose to help. In fact, one neighbor’s wife stopped him from calling the police because “someone else is bound to have called.” How could so many people respond so apathetically? Latané and Darley sought to find out.

The Bystander Effect Experiment

How did Latané and Darley carry out the bystander effect experiment? What are the details of the testing? Here’s a breakdown of the steps:

  • Collected volunteers from local universities.
  • Each volunteer would talk to other students in discussion groups of one to five other people using microphones and speakers, with each person having a room to themselves.
  • Not only could the volunteers not see the one another, but each of the people with whom they spoke was actually a pre-recorded voice.
  • Each person takes turns speaking about their lives for two minutes while the other listens with their microphones turned off.
  • During the conversation, one of the voices tells the group that he suffers from epileptic seizures.
  • At some point later, this voice begins to claim they’re experiencing a seizure, saying something like, “I’m… I’m having a fit… I… I think I’m… help me… I… I can’t… Oh my God… err… if someone can just help me out here… I… I… can’t breathe p-p-properly… I’m feeling… I’m going to d-d-die if…”
  • The study tested how long it would take one of the volunteers to respond and seek help.

How do you think most people responded? Unfortunately, only 31% of the actual volunteers sought help for the other “student” suffering the seizure. However, in the groups featuring a one-on-one conversation, 85% of the volunteers sought help. The bystander effect experiment demonstrated that if someone believes they’re the only person who can help, they are more likely to do so. The larger the group, the fewer reactions exhibited.

Why Does the Bystander Effect Occur?

Why does this happen? How can we explain such a staggering result that only 31% of volunteers sought help for someone who was dying? This usually occurs if someone feels they are the only person who can help. However, larger groups experience a greater diffusion of responsibility. In larger groups, people often feel paralyzed from action because they feel someone else might intervene. Thus, they feel less responsible for what’s happening.

Furthermore, related to this, people might feel ill-equipped to address the crisis. A person who does not know how to respond will likely choose not to do so. For example, in medical emergencies, people might wait around hoping a medical professional will arrive. People might fear they could make the situation worse by trying to help.

A second answer as to why does the bystander effect occur is because of what’s called pluralistic ignorance. This functions like Newton’s Law of Inertia:  an object at rest is likely to stay at rest. If people see others not responding to help the situation, they’re more likely also not to help. People assume that since help is not being offered, help might not be needed.

Despite these helpful answers, more research is needed to answer why does the bystander effect occurs.

Other Examples of the Bystander Effect

The tragic case of Kitty Genovese is not the only example of the bystander effect. Other famous examples include:

  • Larry Froistad – In 1998, he confessed to murdering his five-year-old daughter on an official email list for an alcoholics support group called Moderation Management. This case highlighted how barriers in online communication can heighten diffusion of responsibility and indifference.
  • The Richmond High Incident – In 2009, a group of boys raped a female student of Richmond High School over the course of two and a half hours, with as many as 20 people witnessing the event.
  • Raymond Zack – On Memorial Day in 2011, a man named Raymond Zack walked into the waters of a local beach and stood in neck deep water over 100 yards offshore for nearly an hour. Firefighters, police, and the Coast Guard responded to the scene as a crowd of civilians gathered. Police expected the firefighters to respond while the fighters claimed they did not have the proper training to conduct a water rescue, possibly expecting the Coast Guard to respond. Eventually, Mr. Zack collapsed in the water from hypothermia, and remained there for several minutes until a civilian pulled him to shore. Mr. Zack died later in the hospital.
  • The Parable of the Good Samaritan – Found in the Bible in Luke 10:25-37, this is perhaps the most famous fictional example of the bystander effect. In the parable, a man is beaten and robbed while traveling along the road. Two religious people pass by without helping. Then, a Samaritan, a religious and ethnic outcast, comes to the aid of the traveler.
  • The Holocaust – Perhaps an example of the bystander effect at a national/international level, it is likely that the villages of Dachau, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen, and Ravensbruck, for example, knew of the atrocities committed near their towns. Additionally, political, cultural, aristocratic, and military leaders unsympathetic to Nazism certainly knew.

Importance of the Bystander Effect

What’s the importance of the bystander effect? What can we learn from it? It’s important to remember that no one rises to the occasion. Contrary to Hollywood films, the nerd doesn’t suddenly become the action hero. The down-and-out character doesn’t suddenly become the champion. People respond to situations of crisis in the same way that they respond to everyday life. You respond how you’ve been trained to respond. People who don’t know how to respond to someone choking, a heart attack, a public drug overdose, and other life-threatening situations will not be able to respond helpfully when those situations arise. Therefore, if you want to be more than a bystander in a crisis situation, you need to be trained to handle those situations.

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