Decision Model of Helping

Decision Model of Helping Definition

The decision model of helping, introduced in The Unresponsive Bystander by Bibb Latane and John Darley, outlines a process of five steps that will determine whether a bystander will act or not in a helping situation. This model is also intended to offer a counterargument to the proposition that people do not help in emergencies simply because they become apathetic. As Latane and Darley suggest, an individual’s interpretation of the emergency may be more influential than the individual’s general motivation when it comes to his or her actions in an emergency. The decision model of helping outlines the five steps to helping behavior. Decision Model of HelpingFirst, the bystander must recognize a problem. If perceived as a problem, the second step requires the interpretation of the problem as an emergency. If perceived as an emergency, the third step requires the bystander to feel a personal obligation to act. If the bystander feels responsible to help, the fourth step requires that bystander to decide how to act (form of assistance). And finally, the bystander must decide how to implement the form of assistance. Thus, the decision model of helping explains the helping behavior process from the perception of a problem to the actual act of helping.

Five Steps to Helping Behavior

There are five distinct and consecutive steps in this model. First, one must recognize a problem. Second, there must be an interpretation of the problem as an emergency. Third, the bystander must feel a personal obligation to act. Fourth, the bystander must decide how to act (form of assistance). And finally, the bystander must decide how to implement the assistance.

Step 1: Recognizing the Problem

Bystanders must first recognize that whatever is occurring is not normal, usual, or common; it is a problem. A famous experiment conducted by Darley and Latane exemplifies this first step. Experimental participants were completing a questionnaire in a waiting room before an interview when smoke suddenly appears out of an air vent. These participants were either in the waiting room alone or with two other participants who were actually confederates pretending to be waiting for their interview. Results showed that the 15% of the participants who were in the waiting room alone reported the smoke to the experimenter, whereas only 10% of the participants did so when in the waiting room with two other confederates. Darley and Latane used this experiment to illustrate how people must first recognize a problem. Participants who are alone think something is wrong when they see smoke emanate from a vent. Because this does not usually happen, participants recognize that this could be a problem and hence report it to the experimenter. However, in the other condition, the participants see that smoke is escaping an air vent but then look to the calm expressions of the confederates, who continue filling out the questionnaire, and make the inference that the smoke may not be a problem. After all, if it were a problem, the confederates would have appeared to be alarmed. Hence, the implication is that the same event, a smoky vent, can be interpreted as a problem when the participant is alone but not when the participant is in the presence of calm peers.

Step 2: Interpreting the Problem as an Emergency

If bystanders conclude that there is a problem in Step 1, then Step 2 follows—interpreting the problem as an emergency. Latane and Darley foresee considerable material and physical costs of both intervention and nonintervention, noting additionally that the rewards associated with helping are usually not high or profitable. Consequently, perceiving the problem as an emergency is subject to rationalizations such as discounting the extent to which the problem is really an emergency. The tendency for bystanders to avoid perceiving a problem as an emergency is illustrated in an experiment involving a fight between children. Participants were placed in a room adjacent to another in which (tape-recorded) children were purported playing when the sounds of fighting or play-fighting occurs.

Participants were previously told that the children were either “supervised” or “unsupervised.” Results showed that 88% of the participants who were told the children were supervised (no personal responsibility) thought that the fight was real, compared to only 25% of those participants who were told that the children were unsupervised (personal responsibility). In other words, participants who had more personal responsibility for the children were more likely to rationalize the fighting as playing than those who had no responsibility. Hence, the implication is that the same problem can be perceived as an emergency in one case but not another. One’s decision whether or not to help is rooted in the interpretation of the problem as an emergency.

Step 3: Deciding Whether One Has a Responsibility to Act

If people recognize a problem (Step 1) and interpret it as an emergency (Step 2), then a bystander is forced to decide whether one has a responsibility to act. A bystander who is alone has all the responsibility during an emergency. However, the level of personal responsibility that one feels can become diffused to the extent that other bystanders are also present and aware that help is needed. For example, consider the famous case of Kitty Genovese, who was murdered in New York City despite her pleas for help. It turns out that many people in the neighborhood fully understood that help was needed but no one felt personally responsible to help, as they assumed that others in the neighborhood had already took action (i.e., calling the police). A bystander, however, has a greater sense of responsibility to act when placed in situations with greater personal involvement or a psychological connection to the victim or fellow bystanders. For example, when experimental participants were accompanied by friends, there was not only a significant increase in the percentage of participants completing Steps 1 and 2 of the decision model but also Step 3—determining a responsibility to act. In fact, the rates at which participants took the responsibility to act when accompanied by a friend were similar to the rates at which participants did so when alone with a victim.

Steps 4 and 5: Deciding How to Assist and How to Act

Assuming that Steps 1, 2, and 3 are met, Steps 4 and 5 follow. Step 4 of Latane and Darley’s model involves deciding what form of assistance to provide. This step has many variables in it, including the competency and confidence of the bystander in a specific context (e.g., a bystander familiar with CPR might hesitate before giving CPR compared to a bystander who is a physician). This step is closely followed by the actual act of helping—Step 5. Latane and Darley discuss Steps 4 and 5 together and note that once an individual reaches Step 4, it is highly likely that he or she will continue with the Step 5. Thus, once an individual decides how to help, he or she will very likely implement that way to help. To explain these final two steps and their interconnection, experiments on the willingness to help someone purportedly experiencing a seizure varied the composition of participants and confederates. The participants were either female or male with female or male confederates, who were either medical experts or not. Regardless of the characteristics, Latane and Darley concluded that, for Step 4, the form of intervention is crucial, and it can be direct such as stepping in to break up a fight or reportorial in which the need for help is reported to another person. Thus, in deciding what kind of assistance to provide and how to provide it, subjects must make delineations between direct and reportorial action.


  1. Latane, B., & Darley, J. M. (1970). The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn’t he help? New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  2. Penner, L. A., Dovidio, J. F., Piliavin, J. A., & Schroeder, D. A. (2005). Prosocial behavior: Multilevel perspectives. Annual Review of Psychology, 56, 365-392.