The Bystander Effect

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.

  1. Ambiguity– People will first consider their own safety before worrying about the safety of others.
  2. Cohesion– When in groups of people, people unknowingly alter their behavior.
  3. 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.”

3 thoughts on “The Bystander Effect

  1. Megan Fleming Post author

    Hi Larissa,

    Thanks so much for sharing your example of when you watched “What Would You Do” with your family. Although a small number, I found it really interesting that your families results were right on par with the percentage found in the studies findings. In many situations on that show, I too would not speak up 100% of the time. However, now that we are aware of the bystander effect, I wonder if we would be more likely to speak up? Thanks again for your comment!

  2. Natalie Michelle Soltero Cabrera

    I think this happens with a lot of situations, like for example, the other day my roommates and I were thinking about ordering pizza and like 15 minutes later I asked, how long will it take for the pizza to get here, and they all said I though you were going to call and I was like, I though you guys were going to call. I think this could be consider as a bystander effect. Also te other day I saw a video of domestic violence and how people prefer to stay as a bystander when a woman is hurting a man and when a man is hurting a woman, most people decide to intervene, so I think that maybe depending on the action people would decide to stay as a bystander or not. Here’s the link to the video if you want to watch it. website is in spanish, but the video is in english.

  3. Larissa Marie Wright

    After I watched the television show, What Would You Do, that you mentioned above, I thought about what I would do in the same scenarios and what have I previously done in scenarios where I should have possibly spoken up. Watching the show and thinking back I would not have spoken up 100% of the time, like your cites studies above show. I later watched the show with my mom, aunt and brother and on the situation currently being played (a pregnant woman drinking at a bar), my mom was the only one in the room who would have spoken up. The percentage in my household at the time was 25% which is also close to accurate with your studies’ findings.

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