Imagine a social setting where you’re in a bustling street teeming with crowds. Walking down, you see someone being bullied or fall to the ground nearby. Would you step in to help that person?

Your blind impulse to exhibit altruism would make you want to say “Yes, of course, I would certainly step in to help the person in trouble”, but, if anything, the opposite is true, according to study on social psychology. 

We all aspire to become a hero. Being a hero doesn’t necessarily insinuate the fictitious connotation of the word; it means doing something good for the world for inner contentment  and pride from helping others in need. However, this willingness to help others is influenced by several exogenous factors like – the cost of helping (Is it worth the risk?), the presence of other bystanders (Will someone step in to help?) and mood ( Am I in the right frame of mind?) 

Humans are the most advanced primate on earth. We express great pleasure in showing our qualities of magnanimity and absolutely love it when others acknowledge our selfless acts. But in reality, we aren’t always like this, and whether or not we intervene in a situation where someone is in need of immediate help is dependent on how many other witnesses are present. This is called the the bystander effect. 

How Psychology Defines the Bystander Effect

The bystander effect, or bystander apathy, is a peculiar psychological phenomenon in which an individual feels less inclined to help someone in distress or intervene in an emergency situation in the presence of other bystanders. 

In other words, when something happens and it is interpreted as an emergency, observers are more likely to step in if there are few witnesses. However, the presence of many bystanders leads each of them to believe somebody else will step forward and initiate the action. This drives them to take no action for the emergency happening right in front of their eyes. 

The inaction on the part of witnesses may not necessarily be moral callousness. Instead it’s the external environmental factors that influence their behavior. This was confirmed in a series of classic experiments by researchers Bibb Latané and John M. Darley.

The Bystanders – Illustration by TheSuicidalSquid, for ScienceSwitch

In the first empirical research performed by the duo, the participants, who assumed the role of bystanders, were kept in a quiet room, and later on, they were convinced that they heard someone experiencing an epileptic seizure.

The participants were segregated into three groups. 

In the first group, the participants were made to believe that while a person was having a seizure, nobody was in the vicinity to help the victim. The participants in the second group were made to believe that there was a person nearby the victim when the seizure happened. In the third group, they were made to believe that four other people were there with the victim. 

The researcher found that 85 percent of the participants from the first group who thought the victim was all alone rushed to help the victim, while 62 percent from the second and only 31 percent from the third showed up. Moreover, the participants from the first group were much quicker to take action, compared to those in the other two groups. 

This study was the first to demonstrate that the more there are people , the less likely it is for anyone to intervene in an emergency situation. The presence of multiple witnesses appeared to be an inhibitory element for bystander intervention. 

Another early experiment that followed showed similar results. This time, participants were given questionnaires in either of the following conditions: in a room alone, with two passive confederates, or in a group of three, where the two confederates acted to be normal participants.  As they completed the questionnaires, smoke began filling the room, and their reactions were noted.  

The researchers found that when alone, 75 percent of the participants reported the smoke, compared to 38 percent of the participants who were put into the same room with two passive confederates. Surprisingly in the third group, the two confederates simply whisked off the fumes with their hands, and only 10 percent informed the experimenters about the smoke.

Why does the presence of others inhibit bystander intervention  in emergency situations?

Before making an intervention in any emergency situation, a witness must run through several cognitive assessments. So as soon as an event is noticed, and  interpreted as an emergency, a witness must take responsibility based on what they can do to help and take action accordingly.  Personal or environmental factors that prevent them from making any prosocial move may also come into play. 

Here’s a breakdown of why the bystander effect happens:

Oblivious of the event: 

An emergency that is happening at a distant location is likely to go unnoticed and therefore, it’s impossible to lend a hand. In some cases, bystanders may be under heavy cognitive pressure, and hence be too distracted to even notice an emergency event taking place at close proximity. 

You can’t simply be part of something you’re completely unaware of. So, to initiate a helping behaviour, the first thing you should do is to notice the event. 

Failing to interpret the event as an emergency:

When there is an emergency happening, but people fail to acknowledge it, intervention is less probable. That’s the case when there are too many bystanders. Their presence makes the situation ambiguous and that it needs no intervention. And even if intervention does happen, it’s usually delayed. 

The diffusion of responsibility:   

You notice an event and you understand the severity of it. As a sole bystander, it’s on you to assume the role of helper. However, when there are other witnesses around, the responsibility to take immediate action is permeated across you and other bystanders, so you and everyone else feel less compelled to be the one to make intervention. This is known as diffusion of responsibility.  

The diffusion of responsibility is amplified by the amount of people in a particular area. So, remember this inverse relationship: the more people there are in the group, the less inclined it is for anyone to take action.

Not knowing how to help.

Individuals are less likely to accept responsibility to help if they don’t know what to do in order to help a person in trouble. For example, if you lack medical knowledge or experience to perform CPR, you’re less likely to intervene to help someone who just became unconscious and is in need of CPR. You will probably reassign the responsibility to someone else assuming there should be someone in the group who has much better experience in dealing with the unconscious patient. 

Indecision:

When the bystander finally makes up their mind to help someone, he or she may sustain social pressure from other bystanders and as a result, may not be able to decide whether to make the intervention. Even if they have all the expertise to handle the situation, they may feel perturbed in the crowd for fear of being judged if they fail. This sort of behavior stops even competent bystanders from helping someone in distress.

Real-life Examples of the Bystander Effect

The Kitty Genovese Case: 

One of the most cited real-life examples of this powerful psychological effect is the brutal murder of a 28-year-old woman named Kitty Genovese. The infamous incident transpired in the heart of New York City on Friday, March 13, 1964 in the face of 38 witnesses peering down from their apartments. 

Genovese was on her way home from work. As she was walking in an alley leading to her apartment entrance, she was attacked and killed by a man.

Reports indicated that the attacker stabbed her, left the scene twice after being frightened off by the bystanders in nearby apartments, and then came back to stab her again. This horrific incident lasted for over half an hour, and despite Genovese’s repeated scream for help, no witness from the nearby apartments even called the police. 

The Kitty Genovese Case has been subject to a lot of speculations following the sensationalised article published in the New York Times, which also included a number of factual inaccuracies. Also, while evidence of some witnesses attempting to help Kitty emerged later, the “parable of the 38 witnesses doing nothing to assist Kitty while she was being murdered” has remained a shining example of the bystander effect.

The Drowning Death of Raymond Zack

The incident took place on Memorial Day, 2011 at a beach in California. A suicidal, 53-year-old Raymond Zack, waded 150 yards into the water at Robert Crown Memorial Beach and stood neck deep in there for almost an hour. 

Shortly after his foster mother notified 911 of his suicidal intentions, firemen and police officers arrived at the scene. However, none made the effort to save Zack.

Dozens of bystanders on the beach did not enter the water, expecting emergency response teams to conduct a rescue. And when one bystander decided to save the man herself, she was stopped by a police officer saying “public safety personnel would handle the situation.” Eventually, Zack collapsed due to hypothermia and was pulled to shore shortly after.  He was then taken to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead. 

Death of Wang Yue

Another tragic case of the bystander effect was of a toddler, Wang Yue,  nicknamed “Little Yue Yue.” The incident took place on 13 October, 2011 in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. 

Wang Yue was run over by two vehicles after being wandered off to the busy street of Foshan while her mother was having her laundry gathered during a thunderstorm. As she lay wounded on the road, covered in her own blood, 18 pedestrians walked past her until a elderly female waste picker came to her rescue. She was then taken to a nearby hospital, where she died eight days later.

These all may seem indicative of the growing dehumanization and moral decline in our contemporary society, but it’s simply not true. It’s how we’re wired to react depending on the social context which we don’t have control over.  

Overcoming The Bystander Effect

We understand that the bystander effect can stop us from initiating any helping behavior, but how do we prevent this from happening? 

One way to do this is to be aware that such a psychological phenomenon exists. When confronted with a situation that requires immediate action, don’t let your pluralistic ignorance restrain you from taking your decision. Instead, assess the situation carefully because you don’t want to put yourself in danger, and proceed accordingly. 

The bystander effect is also seen in almost all bullying situations. School bullying is still a thing because bystanders rarely intervene on behalf of the victim. If it weren’t for this strange psychological effect, we could have put a stop to bullying long ago.