This video shows a man who suddenly collapses on a crowed tube train. Of all the people present, only one moved –a young woman, who took one look and quickly moved to the other end of the carriage. Other passengers appear to pretend they haven’t noticed him, while others simply stare. This video is an example of the bystander effect, a well-known phenomenon which claims that the greater the number of bystanders present at an incident, the less likely anyone is to help.
This effect is demonstrated in a study by Darley and Latané (1968) who tested the hypothesis that the more bystanders present, the less likely, or more slowly, any one bystander will be to intervene and provide aid in an emergency. They placed participants in a room, alone, and connected them to other rooms via microphones, under the impression that they would be taking part in a discussion with other participants regarding personal problems related to college life. There were three conditions, all of which contained at least one other confederate who pretended to have a seizure. The other two conditions featured one or four other confederates who acted as other bystanders however none of them appeared to help the confederate in distress.
The speed with which subjects reported the seizure attack to the experimenter was timed. The major independent variable was the number of other people the subject believed to have also heard the fit.
Table 1 reveals that the more bystanders that the subject perceived to be present, the less likely the subject was to report the emergency. 85% of subjects who thought they alone knew of the victim’s suffering responded to the seizure by the end of the fit, 62% of subjects who believed one other person was present responded to the seizure by the end of the fit whereas just 31% of subjects who believed there to be four other bystanders present did so. Subjects in the 2 person group were also faster to respond than those in the 3 or 6 person group. These findings suggest that in the case of an emergency such as someone experiencing a seizure, when people are led to believe that there are other people around, they are less likely and slower to help the victim.
According to Darley and Latané (1968) one explanation for such findings is diffusion of responsibility, which is the belief that someone else will take responsibility. For subjects in the 2 person condition, the perceived distress of the victim and the need for help may have been perceived as very important because being the only bystander present, the subject might have felt responsible for providing help. However, for the subjects who perceived there to be other bystanders present, this pressure to help may have been reduced because the responsibility to help is shared.
This diffusion of responsibility occurs often in daily life as people may assume that others are more qualified to help, such as doctors or police officers. This is accompanied by a fear of being superseded by a superior helper. It is thought that bystanders in emergencies often rationalise their own inaction by convincing themselves that “someone else must be doing something”.
This study reveals the power that other bystanders can have on our potential to act in an emergency. Perhaps if people are educated on the reasons why the presence of others often makes them hesitant to intervene in an emergency, they may be able to overcome these factors and even save a life.
Darley, J.M., & Latané, B. (1968). Bystander Intervention in Emergences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 377-383.