Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The Bystander Effect

The bystander effect refers to: the more people, the less personal responsibility. It can be associated to cases where individuals do not offer any means of help in an emergency situation to the victim when other people are present (e.g. person being attacked or mugged during daylight and no one intervening or calling the police). The probability of help has often appeared to be inversely related to the number of bystanders. I find this very interesting. Why does this happen? Is this related to brain coupling, joint action? Find the causes below.

One of the reasons is noticing: In groups people are less likely to be looking around. As a result, in large groups, passers-by are more likely to be keeping their attention to themselves, than when alone, where people are more likely to be conscious of their surroundings and therefore more likely to notice a person in need of assistance. However, this is not the only factor. Taking responsibility requires interpreting the incident as an emergency situation. After more bystanders have noticed the incident, they are interpreting each others actions to see whether intervention is needed. Since everyone is doing exactly the same thing (i.e. observing), they all conclude from the inaction of others that help is not needed. 

Moreover, taking responsibility involves cognitive decision-making processes, such as cost/benefit appraisal. Cognitive appraisal suggests that after a person notices someone in need, a decision-making process takes place about whether to intervene. This involves considering potential benefits  and costs of intervening (e.g. benefit: social approval, cost: being harmed) and not intervening (e.g. benefit: avoiding harm and injury, cost: guilt and shame). Furthermore, each bystander assumes that someone else is going to intervene and diffuses his responsibility to another person.

This to me is an example of joint action, and yet another sad example of losing one's individuality in a group.

One of the most famous examples of bystander effect:
"The case of Kitty Genovese is often cited as an example of the "bystander effect". It is also the case that originally stimulated social psychological research in this area. On March 13, 1964 Genovese, 28 years old, was on her way back to her Queens, New York, apartment from work at 3am when she was stabbed to death by a serial rapist and murderer. According to newspaper accounts, the attack lasted for at least a half an hour during which time Genovese screamed and pleaded for help. The murderer attacked Genovese and stabbed her, then fled the scene after attracting the attention of a neighbor. The killer then returned ten minutes later and finished the assault. Newspaper reports after Genovese's death claimed that 38 witnesses watched the stabbings and failed to intervene or even contact the police until after the attacker fled and Genovese had died. This led to widespread public attention, and many editorials."


  1. Really interesting topic, and one of the effects that I find truly shocking every time it is shown related to any kind of study - whether people keep sitting in a room that gets filled with nasty looking smoke just because no one else reacts or when seeing people passing by when a man drags a child in a car without saying a word.

    One interesting aspect not mentioned here is that the effect "more people - less personal responsibility" is not true in all cases. There are situations in which the social group membership of the other bystanders and/or the person in need for help affects this general claim:
    While increasing size of bystanders that are strangers inhibits action, an increasing size of friends also increases the likelihood of bystander intervention!
    Also, when male participants imagined female bystanders, they were significantly more likely to intervene when there were five women than when there was one woman (Levine, Mark, Crowther, Simon 2008).
    Well, who would have really expected otherwise ... ;)

  2. At first glance I thought this post was about bystanders in bullying situations, but I do think this adult non-intervention could well have its roots in learned behaviour in childhood. Studies of bullying among children have found that bystanders often give the same reasons for not intervening: fear of getting hurt, fear of becoming a new target for the bully, fear of making the situation worse, and not knowing what to do.

    These seem to tie in with adult reaction to similar situations as you described above. If children do not learn the skills necessary to negotiate their way through events such as witnessing a classmate being picked on, is it any wonder that as adults their reaction is either to turn the other way, or worse, to record it on their smartphone?

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. This is a really interesting topic. But intuitively I think the natural reaction to seeing someone in distress is to help them, its only when you think twice that you start to consider turning a blind eye - which is very sad. I wonder if theres any evidence of the 'good samaritan particle' in us, hmmmmm

    1. There is the concept of the Permission Giver which contends that by either going to someone's aid or not we give the others permission to do the same - e.g. everyone waits at a red pedestrian light until someone breaks ranks and then everyone feels ok to do the same. In the case of giving aid the same applies, if one person does it, a whole gang will follow (in non threatening cases at least).

    2. There are many things in this world such as the bystander effect that baffle me, and it's quite hard for me to accept this reality. For instance, old people in serious distress who receive very little attention in hospital emergency waiting rooms. I agree it's very sad...

  5. The newspaper articles related to the Kitty Genovese case were false claims. There was witness intervention but most 'witnesses' heard something but Did NOT See. Maybe we should question the validity of The Bystander Theory in today's society.

  6. The newspaper articles related to the Kitty Genovese case were false claims. There was witness intervention but most 'witnesses' heard something but Did NOT See. Maybe we should question the validity of The Bystander Theory in today's society.