The Bystander Effect: When The World Stands To Watch
“I didn’t want to get involved”, “We thought it was a lover’s quarrel”, “I was tired”, “I went back to sleep”, “Frankly, we were afraid”, these were the direct quotes of bystanders in response to the cries for help that came from Catherine “Kitty” Genovese. On the night of March 25, 1964, Kitty was accosted and stabbed to death while her neighbors chose to ignore her cries for help for thirty-five minutes. Researchers John Darley and Bibb Latané sought to understand the reasoning behind her neighbors’ lack of intervention. They believed that the number of bystanders caused a decrease in the willingness of the bystanders to step in and intervene. While this and other studies have brought light to the “bystander effect” and empowered bystanders to step up and intervene in emergency or crisis situations, Darley and Latané's study of the bystander effect is just as relevant today as it was in the 1960s given that studies are still being conducted in response to Darley and Latané’s study on the bystander effect and cases such as “Kitty” Genovese are still happening today.
There were reportedly thirty-eight bystanders on the night Kitty Genovese lost her life on the streets of a quiet Kew Gardens neighborhood. A neighborhood full of working-class, law-abiding citizens witnessed an event would be considered against the norm for that area. During a thirty-five-minute period, there were three opportunities for at least one neighbor to come forward and change the outcome of this story, however, it took thirty minutes before the police were even called. This call was made after much deliberation by the caller, in fact, the caller chose to seek counsel from a friend, cross over the roof to another apartment building where he asked a tenant there to make the call. So much valuable time wasted. The hesitation to confront the attacker is understood, however, a simple call to the police from the comfort of their homes could have made a difference and saved a life. This attack called into question the motivation behind the bystanders’ lack of intervention, after all, it should be human nature to help someone in an emergency situation. In the case of Kitty Genovese, some contributed the lack of intervention to the alienation caused by living in a big city. Others blamed the neighborhood while others blamed human nature.
Social psychologists Darley and Latané sought to understand the psychological aspects of what inhibits one from helping in times of crisis such as in the Kitty Genovese case. They felt that diffusion of responsibility, the belief of bystanders in larger groups that someone else will help, shifts the responsibility of helping from oneself to another and thereby delays or totally inhibits bystander response. Darley and Latané decided to test this theory through a research study. They chose to conduct this study as experimental research. Experimental research looks at the causal relationship between two variables - independent and dependent. The relationship between the number of people witnessing an emergency situation, the independent variable, and their reaction to the emergency situation, the dependent variable was studied.
Study participants, students from a New York University introductory psychology class, were told that they would be participating in a study that would examine how they were adjusting to university life and the personal problems they were experiencing; however, this was not the true purpose of the study. This would be considered deceptive and not in line with ethical research study guidelines. According to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Ethics Code Standard 8: Research and Publication, deception in research is only justified by the significance of the prospective outcomes and in cases where nondeceptive alternate procedures are not practical. In this case, Darley and Latané felt that to obtain the participants’ natural responses and achieve the most organic results they could not tell them the true purpose of the study (Hock, 2009, p. 302).
Unsuspecting study participants were placed in three study groups where they were told they would discuss their problems openly and honestly with another student(s). They were also told that to alleviate any apprehensions the students may feel they would be placed in separate rooms where they would communicate with each other through an intercom. This set the stage for the true purpose of the study. The first study group consisted of one study participant that would communicate with one other student; the second group consisted of one study participant that would communicate with two other students; the third group consisted of one study participant that would communicate with five other students. Unbeknownst to the solo study participants, the voices heard from the other room through the intercom were recorded. During the conversation between the solo study participant and the students, the recorded student disclosed that at times they have “severe” seizures, shortly thereafter, the recorded student has what appears to be in an emergency situation as their speech begins to mimic someone that is in the throes of a seizure. The solo study participants’ reactions were measured based on the number of alleged students involved and the time each solo participant took to respond.
Study participants were given four minutes to respond to the “emergency”. In group three, only 60% of study participants responded to the “emergency” and those that responded took over 3 minutes to do so as opposed to group one, the smaller group, where 100% of the participants responded to the emergency in less than 1 minute. These results substantiated Darley and Latané’s hypothesis. They found that the more people the study participants believed were involved the slower participants were to respond if they responded at all. From Darley and Latané’s study, they developed the “Model of Helping” (Hock, 2009, p. 305). It outlined the steps that one goes through before stepping in to intervene in an emergency. Each step described the cognitive process that an individual must go through before deciding to help or not to help.
Darley and Latané’s study would be a catalyst for future studies. While it confirmed how individuals respond to emergency situations when in a group of bystanders it didn’t answer the question of motivation or lack thereof. Researchers wanted to understand what conditions might motivate a bystander’s sense of urgency in response to emergency situations. Conditions such as the orientation of the bystanders, the role of alcohol consumption, the empowerment of the bystander through education, and the role of popularity amongst middle school students were just a few of the conditions that have been reviewed in connection with the bystander effect.
John Darley along with Allan Teger and Lawrence Lewis would go on to further research in this space in 1973 by looking at the role of orientation between bystanders. The researchers believed that the shared facial expressions between bystanders motivates their response to emergency situations. Darley, Teger, and Lewis placed participants in a room where they were either by themselves, facing another individual or facing away from one another and a simulated emergency was performed. The results confirmed the researchers hypothesis that when alone or placed in a position to ascertain the facial expression of another bystander, the response rate was much higher than the bystanders that did not have the advantage of being able to see the face of the other bystander in the room.
A bystander’s fear of being embarrassed or ridiculed plays a role in one’s motivation in failing to respond or intervene in an emergency situation (Hock, 2009, p. 304). This fear is referred to as audience inhibition. This inhibition is triggered by the fear of misinterpreting the situation and the actual need for intervention, it is also related to the fear of being associated with a problem or emergency in a negative way. Marco van Bommel, Jan-Willem van Prooijen, Hank Elffers, and Paul A. M. Van Lange believed that the thought process of individuals that were under the influence of alcohol was less inhibited and these individuals were more prone to see the social benefits of intervening or helping but not the risks and were, therefore, more apt to help quickly, especially when others were around. They initiated a research study where consenting bar patrons were placed in a situation where they would need to help a fellow patron after consuming a considerable amount of alcohol. From their research, they found that the bystander effect diminished or even reversed in participants that were under the influence of alcohol.
Nicole Menolascino and Lyndsay Jenkins examined cognitive and affective empathy and perceived popularity in their motivational role in relation to each of the steps in the “Model of Helping” outlined by Darley and Latané. Through a series of questions presented to sixth to eighth-grade students, the researchers were able to determine that factors such as popularity, cognitive and affective empathy were important in maneuvering through the “Model of Helping”. How one is perceived by those involved in the emergency situation is another motivation to respond to emergency situations, particularly where bullying is involved. They found that students that were perceived as “popular” were bullied far less than those students that were less popular. Because of their lack of exposure to incidences of bullying popular students were less aware or unable to identify situations of bullying and therefore less likely to intervene in cases of bullying. These findings helped to substantiate the need to provide bullying prevention and intervention programs to the less popular students who seemed most likely to take notice of bullying and be in a place to intervene.
The goal of intervention programs is to educate or empower bystanders to intervene in situations of crisis. In a randomized controlled trial, researchers sought to evaluate the effectiveness of bystander intervention programs in the reduction of sexual violence and other related forms of interpersonal violence in twenty-six Kentucky based high schools. Popular opinion leaders were selected to receive bystander intervention training through the Green Dot program and for 5 years the prevalence of sexual violent events and victimization was monitored. What they discovered was that there was a significant decrease in the number of sexually violent perpetration and other forms of interpersonal violence and victimization. This proves that with proper education bystanders can be empowered to navigate through the “Model of Helping”.
While we can understand why bystanders fail to intervene in a crisis situation and what motivates one to intervene it has not eradicated this condition. Fifty years after the stabbing death of Kitty Genovese, less than twenty miles from the streets of Kew Gardens where she took her last breath as her neighbors made the decision not to intervene, we have the story of Khaseen Morris. Khaseen Morris, a sixteen-year-old student, was also stabbed to death by a classmate while over fifty fellow students watched and recorded the event. They failed to intervene on his behalf and again the world is in a tailspin. With the integration of technology and social media into our daily lives, live-streaming acts of crime are on the rise and the practice is baffling law enforcement. To address the heartless act of documenting acts of violence while refraining from intervening, further research is needed to understand society’s obsession with social media and the effects it has on criminal justice.
Darley and Latané’s research on the bystander effect was monumental for social research. It provided a baseline answer that would explain why bystanders chose not to intervene in crisis situations. It would also inspire future research that would seek to understand the motivation behind those that would choose to intervene as opposed to those that would choose not to. Research findings have supported educational initiatives that would empower bystander interventions. There are still opportunities for further research and additional education as our world changes and social media takes center stage and becomes another deterrent in moving away from the crowd and work through Darley and Latané’s model of helping.
- Bommel, M. V., Prooijen, J.-W. V., Elffers, H., & Lange, P. A. M. V. (2016). Booze, Bars, and Bystander Behavior: People Who Consumed Alcohol Help Faster in the Presence of Others. Frontiers in Psychology, 7. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00128
- Coker, A. L., Bush, H. M., Cook-Craig, P. G., Degue, S. A., Clear, E. R., Brancato, C. J., … Recktenwald, E. A. (2017). RCT Testing Bystander Effectiveness to Reduce Violence. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 52(5), 566–578. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2017.01.020
- Darley, J. M., Teger, A. I., & Lewis, L. D. (1973). Do groups always inhibit individuals’ responses to potential emergencies? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 26(3), 395–399. doi: 10.1037/h0034450
- Gansberg, M. (1964, March 27). 37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police; Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector. The New York Times, p. 1. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1964/03/27/archives/37-who-saw-murder-didnt-call-the-police-apathy-at-stabbing-of.html
- Hock, R. (2009). Reading 39: To Help or Not to Help. In Forty Studies that Changed Psychology (6th ed., pp. 300–308). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education International.
- Jhangiani, R. S., Chiang, I. A., Cuttler, C., & Leighton, D. C. (2019). Research Ethics. In Research Methods in Psychology(4th ed., pp. 63–82). Surrey, CN: Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
- Maslin Nir, S., & Dollinger, A. (2019, September 19). Oceanside Stabbing: After a Brawl, Teenagers Gawked as a Boy Lay Dying. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/17/nyregion/ny-teen-murder-oceanside.html
- Menolascino, N., & Jenkins, L. N. (2018). Predicting bystander intervention among middle school students. School Psychology Quarterly, 33(2), 305–313. doi: 10.1037/spq0000262
- Polisi, C. (2019, September 19). New York stabbing bystanders show the law's moral limits. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/19/opinions/new-york-teen-stabbing-bystanders-polisi/index.html