Critical Analysis Of Darley And Latané’s Study On The Bystander Effect

Bystander intervention decreases an individual's willingness to intervene and help others. The most notorious case which portrays this was the muder of Kitty Genovese, 38 residents witnessed the crime however none of which intervened. It has been proposed that bystanders rationalised their inaction by assuming that other bystanders would intervene therefore, regarded their assistance as unnecessary. This implies that Genovese death could have been prevented if there were a fewer number of bystanders. Darley and Latané conducted experiments to test how individuals and groups respond differently to a crisis where an emergency was clearly defined. Participants were seated alone in rooms whilst communicating with a confederate who pretended to have a seizure, asked for help and began to choke through an intercom. Participants either believed they were alone, had one or four other participants present. It was found that as the number of witnesses increased, the likelihood of the participants seeking help for the ‘victim’ decreased from 85% when alone, 62% with one other participant and down to 31% when it was believed four other participants were present, thus supporting the bystander effect theory.

Latané and Darley (1970) identified three different psychological processes which explain why the bystander effect may have occurred. Diffusion of responsibility suggests that in the presence of other bystanders, individuals are less likely to intervene because they feel less personal responsibility for helping because responsibility is shared Secondly, the process of evaluation apprehension elicits fear that bystanders intervention may increase danger within the situation, creating the possibility of legal action against them as well judgement by other superior helpers. Finally, bystanders may also exhibit pluralistic ignorance. This suggests individuals observe the behaviour of other bystanders and misinterpret each other's inaction as a sign that intervention is not required BibbLatané∗JudithRodin, demonstrates the effect of social influence on bystander intervention. 

Several elements within this study have been criticised. Although the use of laboratory experiments allows an increased control over extraneous variables, the experimental setup contains mundane realism, participants believed other individuals would be able to witness the seizures which were in fact pre-recordings. The study was conducted in an artificial environment compared to that of a real life crime setting, creating a lack of generalisability and decreasing the external validity of findings. Since participants were aware they were being studied, demand characteristics could have altered their behaviour, affecting the reliability of findings. The experimental sample was gender imbalanced, 59 females and 13 males. Therefore, the composition of the sample is unrepresentative since the findings mainly reflect the behaviour of females. It has been argued that men are more likely to intervene in situations perceived as dangerous, decreasing the validity and generalisability of finding. Gender and helping behavior: A meta-analytic review of the social psychological literature.

There are also ethical implications within this study, one of which is that participants were deceived into believing that the seizures were real. This situation caused participants forms of distress, many showing signs of nervousness, Eg, trembling hands and sweaty palms. It has also been argued that the Kitty Genovese incident was misconceived, not all 38 witnesses could see the attack, suggesting Latané and Darley developed their bystander effect theory on incorrect information. The bystander effect also lacks internal validity because it shifts the attention to the psychological impact of the presence of others instead of the violence itself which is a more critical issue we should be concerned with.

Latané and Darley (1968), conducted another experiment which recorded the length of time students took to notice smoke entering a room whilst completing a questionnaire. When alone 75% of individuals reported the smoke compared to only 10% when in the presence of passive bystanders. This led to the proposal that in the case of an emergency individuals undergo a cognitive process before deciding whether or not to intervene. The first step involved individuals noticing the event, this must then be interpreted as an emergency, deciding whether it's their personal responsibility to act and finally to know the appropriate forms of assistance. It's suggested that at each stage bystanders can remove themselves from the decision process which therefore leads to the failure to intervene. Based on this model Latané and Darley suggested greater failure to intervene and report the seizure in the case where a larger number of bystanders are present is a result of the diffusion of responsibility. 

An advantage of this study was that variations in group compositions were also studied, female, male and premedical male bystander. Male (69%) and female (62%) responding speeds were similar. This demonstrates that gender and identity of bystanders did not have an effect on the frequency and speed of participants' responses. As well as this personality also had no significant impact on the speed of responses, suggested from the 15 item checklist used to investigate the thoughts participants had when hearing the seizures. The control over these confounding and extraneous variables reduces the risk of individual differences from affecting the results and thus increases the internal validity of findings Variables citation. 

Overall results suggest that personality variables eg: lack of empathy, are not the primary reasons for the lack of intervention in the case of emergencies as previously thought. As a result, this study has contributed greatly to understanding why individuals may not intervene and more specifically how the presence of others may affect this. While this study can be criticised on a number of aspects, it has a number of practical applications and has provided valuable contribution to the understanding of the bystander effect.  

16 August 2021
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