Picture this: You’re walking to class, you see someone’s backpack is unzipped, but you don’t say anything. You probably justified this by saying to yourself, ‘someone else will point it out to them.” This is the bystander effect. By definition, the bystander effect “is a social psychological phenomenon where individuals do not offer help to a victim when other people are present.”
The bystander effect was given its name by psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané following the murder of Kitty Genovese. Kitty was murdered outside her house in Queens, New York. As she was being stabbed to death her neighbors were home and heard her screaming, but they did not call the police. Once the details of this case came out, people were shocked, and this “psychological phenomenon” got its name.
There are three fundamental factors that contribute to the bystander effect.
- Ambiguity– People will first consider their own safety before worrying about the safety of others.
- Cohesion– When in groups of people, people unknowingly alter their behavior.
- Diffusion of responsibility– Seeking help is inversely related to to number of people around.
Many studies have been conducted to examine the bystander effect, and uncover if, why, and how people will help others in certain situations. The first experiment was conducted by Darley and Latané, the psychologists that originally coined the term ‘bystander effect.’
They used college students for their experiment. They told the students they would be members of a group discussion about their lives at school and subsequent problems. The students would talk to other students, but they would all be in individual rooms. Participants had to use microphones and speakers so they could not be able to see the people they were talking to.
When it was their turn, participants had two minutes to speak. Participants did not know that the voices they heard were actually pre-recorded. One of the pre-recorded voices was of an epileptic student (note: this person did not actually have a seizure, an actor just pre-recorded a message making the participant think they were talking to someone having a seizure.) The epilitic student first told the participant about his condition, and that it could be life-threatening. After that, the seizure started.
According to the study, the amount of time it took the participant to seek help was the response they were measuring. Meaning, the dependent variable is the time it takes to seek help and the independent variable is the number of participants within each discussion group.
At the conclusion of the study, Darley and Latané found that only 31% of participants left the room and sought out help. 69% of the participants were okay with continuing the experiment and letting the person (potentially) die. Granted, maybe they weren’t actually okay with it, but by doing nothing, they might as well have been.
The bystander effect inspired a reality TV show called What Would You Do. The premise of the show is: “actors act out scenes of conflict or illegal activity in public settings while hidden cameras videotape the scene, and the focus is on whether or not bystanders intervene, and how.” What Would You Do looks at the bystander effect in everyday, real life situations.
This is a fascinating phenomenon that psychologists still try to reason with. The bystander effect proves what we have discussed over and over again in class, “our intuition is lousy.” You would think that if you heard someone being stabbed, or having a seizure that you would do something to help, but that’s not always the case. Thankfully, “science helps us overcome our human blind spots.”