Don’t Be a Bystander (The Bystander Effect)

The Murder of Kitty Genovese

Social psychology is a very interesting branch of science, one delving into how human behavior is affected by the presence of others. In 1964 there was a murder that would inspire a whole new line of thinking for social psychologists. The event was undeniably a tragedy, but it led to breakthroughs in understanding human behavior, and how we might prevent such tragedies from happening again.

Kitty Genovese circa 1964 Originally published in March 27, 1964 New York Times article, "Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police"

Kitty Genovese circa 1964

Originally published in March 27, 1964 New York Times article, "Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police"

At the time of her death, Kitty Genovese was 28 and lived in Queens, New York City. She was going home after work one night at around 3 AM when she was confronted by Winston Moseley. In an attack spanning half an hour, he brutally stabbed her to death near her apartment. She screamed for help. Reports vary as to how many of her neighbors realized she was being attacked, but the most accurate assessment states that close to a dozen were aware. Even with so many people noticing the assault of a young woman, an ambulance wasn’t called until almost an hour after the event, far too late for poor Kitty Genovese.

The reaction to this hideous murder and the seemingly indifferent response of her neighbors was intense. Newspaper articles reported with horror on the apathy of New York City residents who couldn’t even bother to call the police when a murder was occurring outside their window. For many, this explanation was enough. However, social psychologists realized that there might be something going on other than plain callousness.

Bibb Latané and Judith Rodin, a pair of social psychologists, staged an experiment based on the murder of Kitty Genovese. They staged a situation where it seemed that a woman was in danger and found that when research subjects were alone, 70% tried to help the woman or see if she was all right. When the subjects were in a room with other people, only 40% tried to assist the woman. Other researchers ran similar experiments and they all pointed towards one conclusion: People are less likely to help in an emergency if they are in the presence of others. This phenomenon is called the bystander effect.

If you see an emergency in action, call emergency services! Don't assume that the people there before you have already called.

If you see an emergency in action, call emergency services! Don't assume that the people there before you have already called.

The Bystander Effect

It isn’t because of lack of regard for human life that people in groups are less likely to respond to an emergency. Rather, it is caused by a quirk of human psychology. Research continues to be performed to better understand the bystander effect to this day, and a set of guidelines have been laid down to explain it.

Latané and research partners listed five characteristics of emergencies that bystanders might witness:

1.     Emergencies involve threat of harm or actual harm

2.     Emergencies are unusual and rare

3.     The type of action required in an emergency differs from situation to situation

4.     Emergencies cannot be predicted or expected

5.     Emergencies require immediate action

They further state that when observing an emergency, bystanders must go through the following process in order to act:

1.     Notice that something is going on

2.     Interpret the situation as being an emergency

3.     Degree of responsibility felt

4.     Form of assistance

5.     Implement the action choice

A failure at any of these steps will result in a bystander not helping a victim in distress. Noticing the emergency is the first step, of course. If a neighbor was playing music at the time of Kitty Genovese’s murder and didn’t hear her cries, they can hardly be faulted for not responding.

Interpreting the situation as being an emergency is murkier. Social psychology experiments have shown that people rely heavily on the responses of those around them when deciding how urgent a situation is. Research participants sitting in a room filling up with smoke were less likely to report it as a problem if other people (who were secretly research assistants) were calm.

For someone to help in an emergency, they also must feel a degree of responsibility over the situation. People assume less responsibility if they think the victim doesn’t deserve help, or if they don’t feel competent to assist. Another unfortunate trend is for people in a group witnessing an emergency to assume that someone else will act. If everyone in the group assumes that someone else will call the police then the police might not be called at all. This is called diffusion of responsibility.

Diffusion of responsibility is especially damaging in emergency situations. Kitty Genovese is not the only person to suffer and ultimately die because everyone assumed someone else was doing something. Most people would like to believe that they would assist if someone needed help in a crisis, but the reality is that the bystander effect hobbles even the most well-meaning. If you want to overcome the bystander effect, try to keep these tips in mind:

If you are the one experiencing an emergency, pick out someone specific and ask for help. If you single out one (or several) people, they will feel a degree of responsibility and likely help.

Challenge your perceptions. Even if you see other people ignoring a potential emergency, take a second look. Don’t assume that anyone knows any more about the situation than you do. Your interpretation is just as valid as theirs.

If you are a bystander, accept responsibility. Don’t assume that someone else will do something, be the person that acts!

Ask for help. Pay attention. Accept responsibility. 

It can be hard to break out of our psychological programming, by fighting the bystander effect is one place where a single person can make a huge difference and save lives. In 2010, Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax died after being stabbed. He lay on the sidewalk for more than an hour while people passed him by.

If you see someone collapsed, be the person that checks to see if they are all right. The people who heard Kitty Genovese scream for help might have assumed someone else was calling the police. If you see or hear signs of an emergency, call emergency services. It is much better if multiple calls are made rather than none at all.

Knowing that the bystander effect exists is the first step in defeating it. Keep it in mind, and maybe you can help prevent the next Kitty Genovese tragedy. 

- Kate Dzikiewicz, Paul Griswold Howes Fellow