The Bystander Effect: Kitty Genovese 2.0.
In 1964, Kitty Genovese was walking home from work late at night, when she was brutally sexually assaulted, and stabbed eight times. 38 residents in the neighbourhood admitted to hearing her screams, but not acting upon them. This has since been labeled the bystander effect, and demonstrated in many experimental research projects. Latane & Darley (1968) try to explain it through the notion of diffusion of responsibility, whereby people assume that someone else will take care of it. The bystander effect is, by definition, the observation that individuals do not help those in need when there are others around, and the likelihood of helping decreases linearly the more people there are. One study neatly demonstrating the bystander effect is that of Latane & Rodin (1969), where participants in an experiment were split up into cubicles to complete a questionnaire, and then heard a crash from one of the other cubicles and a female voice crying out “Oh my God, my foot! I can’t move it! Oh, my ankle, I can’t get this thing off me!” When subjects were on their own, 70% responded, when a pair was together in a cubicle, only 40% responded. The responsibility for helping the lady had been diffused amongst a larger group.
However, hope is not lost, for I recently had a frightening experience, yet managed to take away some comfort from it. I was walking along a North Leamington road with a friend; it was dark, and getting late. Suddenly, further along the road we saw a young man in his early twenties lying unconscious in the street with his legs in the road. We ran towards him, as did several other people who had noticed him. Within two minutes, he had six or seven people around him, one calling an ambulance, another calling the police, one man was putting him in the recovery position and laying a jacket over him, and another lady had managed to access his phone and call his mother. After the ambulance had arrived and I was walking away, I began to think about the situation and realised that people had behaved in the opposite way to what I have been taught in social psychology. No one ignored him, and everyone took initiative in the various ways to help him. This man had been far luckier than Kitty Genovese. So why did people behave like this?
Jackson & Williams (1985) asked participants to navigate a computer maze with one other person. They were either told that their performance would be pooled together with the other person (individual contributions not identifiable), or that their contributions would be individually assessed. Contrary to other diffusion of responsibility experiments, the participants each contributed more when the scores were pooled together. They suggested that this might be because people have less evaluation apprehension, meaning they are less anxious about being “in the spotlight.” People are anxious about overreacting in an emergency situation, so perhaps it took one brave bystander to help the unconscious man in the street, which triggered everyone else helping as their evaluation apprehension had been reduced. Either way, the actions of these strangers may well have saved his life.
Jackson, J.M. & Williams, K.D. (1985). Social loafing on difficult tasks: working collectively can improve performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 937-942.
Latane, B. & Darley, J.M. (1968). Group inhibition of bystander intervention in emergencies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 10, 215-221.
Latane, B., & Rodin, J. (1969). A lady in distress: Inhibiting effects of friends and strangers on bystander intervention. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 1969, S, 189-202