Bystander Effect Definition
Individuals who see or hear an emergency (but are otherwise uninvolved) are called bystanders. The bystander effect describes the phenomenon in which such individuals are less likely to seek help or give assistance when others are present. This does not mean that bystanders are apathetic to the plight of others, for bystanders often show signs of distress, anxiety, and concern if they delay responding or fail to respond at all. It also does not necessarily mean that a victim will be less likely to receive help as the number of bystanders present increases—after all, the greater the number of other people present, the greater is the likelihood that at least one of them will intervene. In the event of a medical emergency, for instance, a larger group of bystanders is more likely to contain someone trained to administer appropriate first-aid measures. Rather, the term refers simply to any given individual bystander’s diminished likelihood of offering help when part of a group.
Context and Importance of Bystander Effect
As she was returning to her apartment on March 13, 1964, at 3:30 a.m., a young woman named Kitty Genovese was attacked and killed in the Kew Gardens district of Queens, a borough of New York City. Up to 38 witnesses later admitted witnessing the attack from their apartments as it was taking place, but no one intervened or reported the attack. These witnesses certainly had ample opportunity to call the police—the attack lasted between 30 and 40 minutes. The public and the media wanted to know why. Analysts and news commentators tended to focus on stereotypes of New Yorkers as being uninterested or calloused and lacking concern for their fellow human beings; they saw the event as an outgrowth of the anonymity fostered by life in a very large city. Social psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley did not find such explanations particularly compelling; they thought that perhaps any individual in a similar circumstance might have hesitated to help. They argued that, among other reasons, it was the knowledge that there were so many other potential helpers, ironically, that inhibited each bystander’s willingness to act. Indeed, since the murder of Kitty Genovese, the bystander effect has been observed literally dozens upon dozens of times in many other cities and countries, and it is not unique to New York. On November 7, 2004, in Corona, California, for instance, a security camera at a mall parking lot recorded two men kidnapping a woman. The men chased a woman around the parking lot, carrying her back to the car where the men then proceeded to stuff her into the trunk of the vehicle. The camera also recorded the images of a dozen bystanders scattered throughout the scene and at various stages of the kidnapping. Several bystanders turned their heads to watch the incident, but none of them called the police or went to the woman’s aid. The security camera even recorded automobiles that drove past without slowing down to help the screaming woman as she was being stuffed into the trunk.
The essential element of a social psychological analysis of the bystander effect focuses on the question of why individuals in groups are less likely to help or are slower to respond than those who are alone.
Bystander Effect Evidence and Explanations
Bystander effects have been shown to occur in a variety of laboratory and field settings. Bystanders in groups are less likely to help people who are in need in a subway, or to give to individuals seeking small amounts of change for a phone call. Individuals in groups are less likely to give or seek help when someone apparently has been hurt falling from a ladder, when a stranger suffers an epileptic seizure, and when smoke pours into their room.
There are three fundamental reasons that the presence of others inhibits helping; each of these reasons grows more powerful as the number of other people present increases.
- Social inhibition. For this factor to operate, individuals must believe that the others can see them. The concern here is that the individual wants to avoid attracting negative attention for misinterpreting the situation, overreacting, or doing the wrong thing. Individuals fear negative evaluation (sometimes especially from strangers) because they have a strong need to belong and be accepted. Consequently, they try to minimize rejection and exclusion by inhibiting any actions that potentially might bring derision.
- Pluralistic ignorance. Another cause of the bystander effect is pluralistic ignorance (or conformity to the inaction of others). Imagine sitting in a room and hearing what sounds like someone falling off a ladder in the hallway. If alone, you might hesitate slightly to consider whether it was really an accident, but you are likely to go investigate. In a group, however, you are first likely to check out others’ reactions surreptitiously to get assistance in interpreting the situation. If they, too, are calmly checking out others’ reactions, then there is a room full of others who are not acting and who appear to be unalarmed. This becomes the information that guides interpretations and, ultimately, the behavior of bystanders. In short, the message is that this is not an emergency because no one else is acting like it is an emergency; therefore, help is not needed. Pluralistic ignorance requires that the individual can see the others.
- Diffusion of responsibility. Another explanation requires neither seeing others or being seen by others; it merely requires believing that others are around who could help (as was the case in the Kitty Genovese murder). This belief reduces the individual’s obligation to help because others share that same obligation. The more bystanders who are believed to be present, the less responsibility the individual bears. Diffusion of responsibility has been demonstrated to be sufficient to cause the bystander effect even in the absence of conditions necessary for social inhibition or pluralistic ignorance.
A variety of factors can either lessen or amplify the bystander effect, but these factors are not likely to eliminate it. One very robust factor is group size: the larger the group is, the less likely any individual will act (or the more slowly that person will act). This is not a linear effect (i.e., it is not the case that ten bystanders are twice as slow as five bystanders), because the greatest impact occurs as the number present grows from one to two bystanders, with slightly less impact from two to three, and so on. In other words, additional bystanders beyond the seventh or eighth person have little additional impact. Other studies show that the bystander effect is smaller when the bystanders are friends than when they are strangers, when the person in need is more similar to the bystanders, and when the situation is clearly an emergency. Individual differences matter, too. Individuals who score higher in agreeableness and prosocial orientation are faster to help.
Still other studies show that the bystander effect is not restricted to emergency situations and can even explain someone’s failure to help another person pick up dropped pencils, or not taking a coupon for a free meal in the presence of others. In fact, diffusion of responsibility for helping can be seen as a more general example of social loafing—that is, exerting less effort as a function of being part of a collective, no matter what the request is.
Research has demonstrated that the bystander effect is an extremely consistent phenomenon. Regardless of the nature of the situation requiring help, the type of assistance called for, the age or gender of the research participants, or the location in which the research is being conducted, people are less likely to help when part of a group than when alone. This finding has occurred almost without exception, with the existing body of research presenting nearly 100 such comparisons to date.
The accepted but not well-tested method of countering the bystander effect is for victims to narrowcast their pleas for help (“You in the red coat, call an ambulance!”) rather than broadcasting the request to everyone. The victim’s singling out one person does not allow the bystander to assume that someone else may help. Being specific in the type of help that is being requested, targeting an individual from whom it is requested, and clearly indicating that the situation is an emergency will aid in eliminating many of the ambiguities that may exist, thus focusing social pressure on the individuals whose help is needed.
Bystander Effect Implications
Bystander helping intervention is regulated both by individual differences and the power of the situation.
People in general say they would help in a situation that requires aid. Research and naturalistic observations reveal, however, that having more people in a situation requiring help actually decreases the likelihood that help will be given. To combat the bystander effect, Good Samaritan laws have been created in several countries requiring bystanders, at minimum, to dial an emergency number or face legal implications.
- Latane, B., & Darley, J. M. (1970). The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn ‘t he help? Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Latane, B., & Nida, S. (1981). Ten years of research on group size and helping. Psychological Bulletin, 89, 308-324.