Safety in numbers? Think again. The Bystander Effect: a look at the psychology of helping behavior

Which situation gives you a better chance of survival? Having a heart attack in a building with only one person in the next room or having a heart attack in the middle of Central park on a crowded hot summer day in New York City? I’ll take the building with one person please! I think that many of us falsely assume that there is safety in numbers—the more people, the more help we would receive if we had an emergency, right? Maybe not. According to much research that has been done on the psychology of helping by Latane & Nida (1981), Beaman, Barnes, Klentz, & McQuirk (1978), and others, our chances of receiving help in an emergency situation decline as the amount of bystanders increases. Knowing the social psychological processes at work that play a large role in determining whether or not a person will help in an emergency situation can make the difference when deciding between helping or not helping someone who is in need.
The bystander effect is a social phenomenon that explains how and why a person is more likely to be helped in an emergency situation in the presence of less people (Gruman, Schneider, & Coutts, 2017). This may sound counterintuitive as, statistically speaking, we may think that more people equals more people who can actually help. However, there are three social psychological processes that work against the assumption that more people means more help: the audience inhibition, social influence, and diffusion of responsibility (Latane & Nida, 1981, p. 309).
Whether we help others or not in an emergency situation has a lot to do with how we interpret emergency situations, as well as how many other bystanders are present (Beaman, Barnes, Klentz, & Mcquirk, 1978). Audience inhibition occurs when people do not take action to help others in an emergency situation because they are afraid of being embarrassed or criticized by others for failing to act appropriately—for example, acting like it is an emergency when in fact it is not, or by giving a person the wrong type of care or treatment. Another hindering factor to helping behavior is being uncertain if an emergency really exists at all. The more ambiguous the situation is to the bystander, the more likely help will not occur. Social influence plays a large role in the inhibition of helping behavior—bystanders often look to others for informational cues that help them interpret the situation; if others appear not to be alarmed, then others may assume there is nothing to be alarmed about and that no help is needed, therefore no help is offered.
According to the researchers Latane and Darley (1981), it is really surprising that anyone in a crowd ever helps anybody else in an emergency situation at all, especially when when one considers that often there are many more costs incurred by helping others than direct benefits to one’s self. Diffusion of responsibility describes another reason why people in need of help in an emergency situation may not receive help if there is a group of bystanders instead of just one individual bystander—humans often shift responsibility to others so that are not faced with assuming individual responsibility for helping (Gruman et al., 2017). There may be more costs to helping than there are benefits. The more people that are present, the more people may feel that others can just help instead of themselves—in this way, we can now see why it may be safer to have an emergency with one person present. That lone person is much more likely to not be able to pretend they didn’t notice the event or to assume others will help.
Knowing why we act in particular ways can help us become more aware of the social psychological processes at work, especially when it comes to helping behavior. If we understand what may influence us to think, feel, or behave in certain ways towards a situation, then we may be better equipped to handle situations more effectively. In emergency situations, knowledge of how we may be influenced by others to help or not help could bring about positive change related to how we perceive situations and whether we will in fact help others. It appears as though education is the key; through intervention strategies of educating the public about social inhibition, social psychology and applied social psychology can work together to help communities function better. By educating people about the psychology of helping, we can become more aware and make more informed decisions which may lead us to act in ways that keep each other safer and more protected by their fellow human being.



Beaman, A. L., Barnes, P. J., Klentz, B., & McQuirk, B. (1978). Increasing Helping Rates Through Information Dissemination: Teaching Pays. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 4(3), 406–411. doi: 10.1177/014616727800400309

Gruman, J. A., Schneider, F. W., & Coutts, L. M. (Eds.). (2017). Applied Social Psychology:
Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA:Sage. ISBN 9781483369730

Latané, B., & Nida, S. (1981). Ten years of research on group size and helping. Psychological Bulletin, 89(2), 308-324. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.89.2.308


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