The bystander effect refers to the phenomenon that occurs when a large number of people are present in an emergency situation but few, if any, intervene in the situation. Essentially the effect shows that people are less likely to take action when in a group setting. They become bystanders, onlookers, observers.
A real life example that many students taking introductory psychology courses would have heard of is that of Catherine Genovese, aka “Kitty.” This 28 year old woman was brutally murdered on March 13, 1964 outside her apartment block. As she was coming home from work she was repeatedly stabbed by a man, Winston Moseley. There were 38 people in the block who heard her screams, out of which six were eye witnesses. It wasn’t until half an hour after the attacks started, throughout which Kitty had been screaming for help, when someone finally contacted the police. Why did they wait half an hour? Did they assume someone else in the apartment block had already called the police releasing them from the responsibility of doing so?
Bibb Latane and John Darley carried out an experiment to test the bystander effect. They had participants sit in a room and fill out a questionnaire. Either the participant was alone in the room or with other participants who were actually confederates, i.e. people pretending to be participants. As the participant was filling out the questionnaire, smoke started seeping into the room from underneath the closed door. When alone, 75% of the participants reported the smoke to the experimenter. When the participants were in the room with the confederates who were told to ignore the smoke, only 10% of participants reported the smoke.
Why is it that group settings seem to evoke apathy in people? One of the explanations is the diffusion of responsibility. This implies that when there are other observers in a situation, people feel less responsible for taking action in an emergency situation. They feel less pressured to do something because all of the other people around can do something instead. We also like fitting in and behaving in socially acceptable ways. When we see others failing to act, we take it as our cue to do the same. This was evident in the smoke experiment. When the confederates did nothing about the smoke, the participants didn’t want to go against the tide and speak up. They doubted themselves more which lead to them uneasily sitting and watching the smoke creep under the door.
Now it’s not all doom and gloom. People do tend to act pro-socially when they feel they are part of a community and believe in helping each other. Perhaps in the case of Kitty, the people in the apartment block didn’t feel like much of a community but instead as isolated individuals. Perhaps the people also thought the situation was less serious than it actually was. Also if pro-social models are displayed performing good deeds in a group setting, this will increase the likeliness of others carrying out similar actions. If one person can break out of the by-standing mould perhaps we all can.
Cherry, K. (n.d.). The Bystander Effect. About.com. Retrieved May 30, 2013, from http://psychology.about.com/od/socialpsychology/a/bystandereffect.htm
Image credit: Coolpsychologist. (June 9, 2009). THE BYSTANDER EFFECT. Retrieved May 30, 2013, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSsPfbup0ac