The Bystander Effect

  • Note: All images were taken from Creative Commons
  • Want to contribute to the social science column? Email

The Murder of Kitty Genovese

At 2:30 AM on March 13, 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was walking home after a long day at work as a bar manager. As she made her way from the parking lot to her apartment, she was attacked, assaulted, and murdered by 29-year-old Winston Moseley. Despite approximately 38 people hearing her cries for help throughout the entire 35-minute attack, only one person came to her aid: her close friend, Sophia Farrar. By then, however, it was too late. 

This headlining murder sparked many psychologists to research and investigate why, in a crisis like Kitty’s, so many can witness it but not do anything about it. To explain this, they coined the term the bystander effect, which states that when a person is in distress, a greater number of people present results in a lesser likelihood that they will help the distressed person. While there are a variety of psychological principles that can be attributed to the bystander effect, the most substantial include a diffusion of responsibility and pluralistic ignorance.

Darley and Latané

Following the murder, Psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané sought to determine how the presence of others inhibits someone from intervening in an emergency, as had happened in the murder of Genovese. In 1968, they constructed an experiment that tested the behavior of those in an emergency. They recruited college students to casually converse with each other in groups of two, three, or six other students. Each member talked over an intercom and was separated into cubicles, which they were told would preserve their anonymity. Unbeknownst to the participants, however, one member in each group would pretend to suffer through a seizure during the conversations. Cubicle farm

When the seizure began, eighty-five percent of the participants in the two-person groups called for help, as they believed they were the only ones who could provide assistance. In the groups of three, only 64% of participants searched for help, and in the groups of six, an astonishingly low thirty-one of participants called for help.

This study highlights the diffusion of responsibility that occurs during emergencies; because individuals believe that there are other witnesses, they feel a lesser personal responsibility to intervene and help. Regarding the Genovese murder, so many neighbors were present, yet so few intervened, as they assumed that someone would surely help. However, this way of thinking inevitably led to none of them taking action.

In another one of their studies, Darley and Latané recruited students to supposedly “fill out a questionnaire.” They divided the participants into two, some filling the questionnaire out alone, and others filling it out within a group of actors who were instructed to not react to any fake emergency. When (fake) black smoke began to creep out of the room’s air conditioner, 75% of the participants who were alone left and reported the smoke. However, when the participants were in the room with the actors, only 10% searched for help.Air conditioner 4-12-10

Why, with the inclusion of the actors, did such a small percentage of participants report the smoke? One reason is the psychological phenomenon of pluralistic ignorance, which states that when the surrounding people in an environment do not appear concerned or act as if there is no emergency, the subject subconsciously agrees and does not intervene. In other words, the subject believes that because others around him/her and calm, no emergency is really taking place. Going back to the Genovese incident, because no neighbor was helping and responding to the attack, they assumed it was a lover’s quarrel and did not intervene.


While there were many psychological influences that promoted the bystander effect and caused the attack on Genovese to be so tragic, there are also many ways that we can help combat this effect. By learning from the mistakes of previous incidents, we can become better prepared if and when we encounter emergencies ourselves. Below are some tips by regarding some ways you can help to counter the bystander effect:

  • “Recognize situations where the bystander effect may be present and be aware of them. Realize that we are all bystanders. By doing so, next time there is a problem you’ll be able to notice it, interpret it as an emergency and assume responsibility more clearly.”
  • “Review your concepts about who deserves help. This can get tricky when people perceive the victim as someone who brought their unfortunate events upon themselves, like drug or alcohol addicts. No one is forced to offer assistance to everybody in need, but be aware of your own ideas and tendencies.”
  • “Know how to help people in different situations. Seeing yourself as more qualified to give assistance raises the likelihood of that behavior.”
  • “If you need help, choose a specific person to ask for it. This avoids the diffused responsibility phenomenon. Instead of saying ‘Someone call an ambulance,’ point directly to someone and say ‘You, call an ambulance!’”
  • “If someone needs help, be the one to take action. Once people see that somebody is intervening, they are more likely to start offering assistance as well.”

Want to learn more? Check out the sources I used below:

By admin

Leave a Reply

You May Also Like