The Bystander Effect’s Big Effect

A lot of the time, many people are not even aware that they are a part of a community. On the whole, they may not even be a part of one; we have evolved into such large populations, that people no longer want to interact with others. As a matter of fact, we go to great lengths to try to avoid it. Whether we are constantly on our cell phones or if we choose to shop online over going into a store, there is very little connection between people. This can be positive, as people have become more independent. However, there can also be negative consequences to such progress. For example, the bystander effect is something that has been studied many times; the idea that there is “safety in numbers” is certainly not always true when there is some sort of an emergency. In other words, people are less likely to take action when in a larger group (Scheider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). While this effect has actually gotten people killed in the past, there are ways to help change the way we behave by means of education on the subject through interventions.

On an evening in 1964, Kitty Genovese was walking back to her apartment. Three dozen people watched as a man followed her and stabbed her several times. These people were not criminals themselves, but still merely watched from their windows with the lights on. The killing took place over a period of a half hour, and only one person called the police when the woman was already deceased and the killer had fled (Gansberg, 1964). Imagine, a woman being brutally murdered outside of your home. You see others watching nervously from their windows. Would you help her?

We all like to think that we are good people, and we assume that if we are witnessing a violent murder that we will step in and call the authorities. However, when the aforementioned bystanders were questioned as eyewitnesses in this murder, each said that they just assumed someone else had called the police. Had the population been smaller, or had there been only one eyewitness, the police may have been called sooner and the woman could have been saved. Instead of having a sense of community and actively working together, we have instead resolved to pass responsibility off on strangers. It is almost as if we have become so used to numbing ourselves to avoid stimulus overload, that it is our default setting in any given situation (Schneider et al., 2012). This reality does not need to be accepted, and it can be helped through active participation of communities in interventions.

Of course, most of the literature suggests that people are less likely to help in the presence of other bystanders because of diffusion of responsibility; however, other research suggests that witnesses to any kind of victimization are less likely to help simply because they don’t know how or they are afraid of worsening the situation. In a survey study about specific bystander behavior in a variety of situations involving family and friends, it was found that when onlookers intervened and helped, there were more positive outcomes for the victims (Hamby, Weber, Grych, & Banyard, 2015). In order to encourage more bystanders to engage in helping behavior, the authors suggest teaching people proper ways to intervene in specific situations. For example, in the case of Kitty Genovese’s murder, onlookers may have been more likely to intervene if they had felt safe or confident in knowing how to help; this is not to say that someone could have simply called the police, but actually tried to physically help her (if one of them had a legally purchased gun, for instance). Within communities, programs could be organized to help teach people how to help others who are being victimized, much like what cops learn in the Police Academy. Community members could participate in mock situations, and practice intervening properly—despite how big of a crowd they are in. This could help lead to more positive outcomes.

In the modern world, it always seems easier to not get involved in anyone’s business. It is easiest to just worry about ourselves and our own lives, without giving anyone else much of a thought. While it is not our responsibility to help others, it is hard to imagine not wanting to if any of us were to see someone in trouble. The previous survey study was done on situations with family and friends, suggesting that people will be more willing to help someone if they feel a connection to them; this goes back to the importance of having a sense of community and knowing your neighbors. Regardless, never assume that someone else is going to do something. If you do not feel comfortable intervening yourself, at least find someone who is. Based on the aforementioned terms and literature, and the suggested program to increase helping, people and communities can once again start looking out for each other’s well being.


Gansberg, M. (1964, March 27). 37 who saw murder didn’t call the police. The New York Times.

Hamby, S., Weber, M.C., Grych, J., & Banyard, V. (2015). What difference do bystanders make? The association of bystander involvement with victim outcomes in a community sample. American Psychological Association. 6. 91-102.

Schneider, F.W., Gruman, J.A., & Coutts, L.M. (2012). Applied social psychology:
Understanding and addressing social and practical problems (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks,California: SAGE Publications, Inc.

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