Written by Polina Igorevna Lynch

On the 13 of March 1964, New York residents woke up to a horrific murder of Kitty Genovese, a young bartender, who was stabbed, raped and murdered by Winston Moseley (a man she had never met before) in front of her apartment building. The murderous act was horrendous and callous, but what was even more horrifying was the fact that the murder was witnessed by dozens of apartment residents.

Later, it was found that the number of eyewitnesses was exaggerated by the media, which claimed that 38 neighbours saw the murder and no one did anything to help Kitty (Ruhl, 2021). On the contrary, a couple of neighbours called the police, but some of them thought this was a marital argument, which got a bit too far. It seems like some people tried to help, but their help wasn’t enough. Some people knew that something was happening but thought the situation was ambiguous, and they did not intervene. 

The circumstances of the horrific murder caught the attention of social psychologists and researchers, who set off to investigate why people refuse to help in emergency situations. The term ‘bystander effect’ was coined by social psychologists Latane and Darley in 1964. The researchers claimed that eyewitnesses shift responsibility onto others and look for clues from the social environment when seeing an emergency. For instance, in one of their experiments, people showed passive behaviour even when an apparent, unambiguous emergency (a smoke filling the room)! However, the participants were placed in the room with confederates (experimenter’s aides), who were told not to react to the emergency. As a result, when people saw no reaction or clues from others to the smoke in the room, they also did not report the smoke (Latane&Darley,1968).

 

Research on the bystander effect says that the more people are present, the less likely it is for someone to show any helping behaviour. Latane and Darley write that there are a lot of obstacles that onlookers and passers-by face when there is an emergency. The researchers came up with a 5-step cognitive model, which can be helpful for us to understand why we can easily become one of the bystanders (Latane&Darley, 1970).

According to the model, the first step is to notice an emergency. For example, if a crime happens in a busy street, it can be easily overlooked. There are too many stimuli such as colours, sounds, movements – it can cause stimulus overload when our nervous system becomes overwhelmed with the environment, and we stop noticing things.

If we notice something strange happening despite a busy environment, the next step is to interpret the event as an emergency. The obstacle in this step can be other people who seem to ignore the situation. If we are not sure about what is going on, we tend to look for reactions from other people and follow their cues.

The third step is to take responsibility for the emergency. If we notice someone needs help (it is indeed an emergency), we may fall victim to the diffusion of responsibility, where we think someone else will help. 

The fourth step is to decide what you can do in this emergency. For example, if you are not sure you can perform first aid or you don’t know which emergency number to call – this can stop you from helping a person in need.

The last step is to give real help, and the obstacle is, again, other people. But in this step, one might be worried about doing something stupid (especially when no one else is helping). In this step, we behave according to the social norms. If the “norm” is to ignore someone, the majority will follow. 

As we can see, there are a lot of obstacles that can prevent us from being helpful or even saving someone’s life. But how can we get help in a crowd ourselves? First of all, make your need clear. For example: “I am not feeling well” or “I need to get away from this man”. Secondly, make the situation unambiguous. For example: “I don’t know this man” or “I need a doctor”. Lastly, make eye contact with one person or point to someone specific. For instance: “A woman in a red jacket, help me please”. By doing this, you directly give someone the responsibility to help, and they will feel embarrassed if they refuse (Vandrovcova, 2021). 

Finally, I encourage you to be the first one to help. If the situation is dangerous or you cannot give proper help, be prepared to call emergency numbers or get others to assist you. Then, when someone sees you trying to help, they are more likely to follow the norm of not being passive. 

References

Latane, B., & Darley, J. M. (1968). Group inhibition of bystander intervention in emergencies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 10(3), 215–221. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0026570

Latane, B., & Darley, J. M. (1970). The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn’t He Help? Prentice Hall.

Ruhl, C. (2021, April 20). Kitty Genovese | Simply Psychology. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/Kitty-Genovese.html

Vandrovcova, T. (2021). Prosocial behaviour [Slides]. UNYP. https://elearning.unyp.cz/pluginfile.php/179866/mod_resource/content/1/12%20prosocial%20behavior.pdf