New York City: Bystander Effect and The Diffusion of Responsibility Among 8.55 Million

I live in the New York City area, where I frequently see a variety of ambiguous emergency situations.  Given how large New York City is–roughly 8.55 million people–it can be difficult to pay attention to everything going on at the same time in the same space (World Population Review, 2019).  In order to function through the seas of people and overwhelming noise, one must frequently tune out the sounds and scenes surrounding them.  This great degree of noise and scenes is an example of stimulus overload, which happens when one’s body is overwhelmed by the degree of incoming sensory material (Gruman, Schneuder, & Coutts, 2016).  This stimulus overload is what can lead to the tuning out of the environment, such as what happens with many New York City residents daily.

Even when residents do notice something–an emergency situation, for example–they may not act.  Rather, they may believe others will act instead, creating what is known as diffusion of responsibility (Latane & Nida, 1981).  When this occurs, individuals assume they do not need to act because someone else will.  Thus, they diffuse their personal responsibility back into others, believing they themselves do not need to be the one to take action.  This can create the bystander effect, which occurs when people do help despite witnessing an emergency situation (Gruman, Schneuder, & Coutts, 2016).  Interestingly, despite seeing an emergency situation, due to the above reasons, many chose to ignore the emergency, and proceed with their activities.  I personally experienced something like this several years ago in New York City.

I was in New York City running errands when I saw several girls surrounding a man passed out on the ground (I briefly mentioned this in my discussion post for this week).  The man looked like he had just fallen on the ground without warning. He had been wearing a baseball hat and the hat was resting just off of his head on the concrete.  I found the situation to be alarming–it seemed like a clear emergency situation to me, as the man was completely unconscious–and I stopped to talk to the girls who were surrounding him.  I asked what was going on, and they said he was unconscious, and they did not know what to do.  They said they saw the man passed out and thought they should stop, but they did not know what action to take.  I said I thought I should call 911, and, since the girls seemed indecisive, I asked someone on the street if I could borrow their phone (I had left mine in the car), and they agreed.  The girls left after I called 911 and the man whose phone I borrowed stayed with me until the ambulance came, which took the man to the hospital.

The experience I had in the above situation was not easily forgotten, as I had difficulty making sense of why the girls did not call 911, or why someone else did not stop and do something.  This lesson, however, has helped me make sense of these lack of actions, due to the phenomenons of the diffusion of responsibility and the bystander effect.  In the particular situation described above, people walked by despite seeing the emergency situation (the bystander effect), likely believing that someone else would take responsibility and help in the situation (diffusion of responsibility).  Interestingly, I think the diffusion of responsibility was likely also at play among the few girls standing around the man.  I think none of them were taking full responsibility for the situation (i.e. they were there, but none of them were doing something to help), as they believed someone else in the group would.  While I am glad I called stopped and was able to borrow someone’s phone to call 911, I am sure there have been many other moments in my life where I have been affected by the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility, partially due to the stimulus overload that accompanies New York City.  Thus, I am grateful that this lesson has increased my awareness of these phenomenons, so I can be more mindful of those in emergency situations as I navigate such a large–and sometimes overwhelming–city.






Gruman, J. A., Schneuder., F. W., & Coutts, L. M. (2016). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Socanil and Practical Problems.

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

New York City, New York Population 2019. (2019). Retrieved from

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