The Bystander Effect, What Would You Do?

On October 24, 2009 ten to twenty High School students stood passively by as a 15 year old girl was repeatedly gang raped and beaten over a two hour period. Yet, no one intervened to stop the crime. While the newspaper and television accounts of the crime shocked the nation, it is not the first time a crime occurs while citizens do nothing to rescue a victim. In fact, the phenomenon has a term called "The Bystander Effect."

The term was coined after the infamous and tragic Kitty Genovese case of 1965 that happened one late one night in Queens New York. In this case, Kitty Genovese, a twenty eight year old college graduate was coming home from work when she was attacked, raped and stabbed to death. She cried out for help and, although residents in the apartment building heard her pleas, no one helped with one exception. Someone yelled out the window to the attacker to leave her alone or they would call the police. The attacker ran off, the police were called, refused to believe anything serious happened and did not respond. While Miss Genevose lie on the ground, the attacker returned ten minutes later and stabbed her to death. Despite more cries for help no one responded.

In a more recent case people ignored a man who had been run over by an automobile and lied unconscious in the street while pedestrians walked by. In fact, one man was observed crossing the street and avoiding the man who was lying in the street. This individual just kept going.

There have even been a number of psychology experiments repeatedly demonstrating the same factor, that people do not respond if certain circumstances exist.

In this case, the right set of circumstances has to do with the size of the group observing an attack. The larger the group, the less likely is it that anyone will take action.  However, if there are only one or two people witnessing a crime, it is more likely someone will take action.

The deeper and more troubling question is why the bystander effect occurs?

Many theories have been put forward and among them are the following:

1. Everyone is convinced that someone else will do something.

2. There is a diffusion of responsibility in which the metaphor comes into play that, "No one rain drop believes it caused the flood." Here, the larger the group, the less pressure each witness feels to do anything helpful.

3. There is fear of victimization in which people avoid conflict because of the dread that they will be attacked if they help.

4. The larger the group the more likely it is that everyone will look to everyone else for clues about what to do. In this case, observing no one taking action is translated into something like, "It is not appropriate for me to take action."

5. People create their socially acceptable reasons for not taking actions, such as, "Well, no one else is doing anything because: it's a lover's quarrel; its just teenage pranks; its just innocent play acting,....etc."

I am old enough to remember when this was a real problem in the New York City subway system when gangs of teenagers would roam the trains late at night looking for victims to rape and rob. During these episodes, there were frequent circumstances in which bystanders took no action to protect the victim.

All of this reached a crisis point under the New York City administration of Mayor Ed Koch, during the 1970's or 80's when subway rider Bernard Getz, having been victimized by these young criminal in the past, rode the trains armed with a gun. One night, when approached by four youngsters whom he was convinced were about to attack him because they asked him for money, pulled out his gun and began firing. Ultimately, Getz was not held accountable even though it is illegal to carry a concealed weapon in the City unless one has a license. I suspect that the public strongly identified with Getz and felt no sorrow about the young and African American victims who were permanently paralyzed by the shooting.

After World War II most of the Nazis convicted of war crimes claimed as their defense that they were just following orders. In the examples above and others in psychological research, there really does appear to be reality to "just following orders" due to the impact and importance of social approval versus disapproval and rejection felt by most human beings.

What would you do if you found yourself witnessing these types of crimes? Would you stand and watch, walk away or intervene? I encourage your comments and observations.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD.

  • Cathy

    Now with cell phones, I would dial 911 rather than physically becoming a part of the "action" myself. Same thing if I saw someone just lying there, I would call 911. It is essential to look after one's own well being. Very few of us would be able to physically stop someone else in the first place. I think a lot of people go into shock where they just freeze when seeing this kind of thing also. My son, when in the 8th grade, tried to stop a fight between a smaller kid and a very large and strong kid and was hit in the face, had both permanent front teeth broken off and his face was swollen and bruised. When in high school, he decided to walk on the "dividing" line - 6th Street, you never go over on the other side but he did. Two guys took his backpack and were beating him up until a female soldier screamed at them from her apartment balcony to stop and she was on her way down while calling the police. Maybe, he "paid it forward". Now, he is in Afghanistan protecting the underdog and can't figure out why people don't care about the Afghanistan people - my little "Sweetpea".

  • Anonymous-1

    Put yourself in the victims shoes, if you were being raped, beaten, robbed, would you want smeone to step in and help. I am big enough to step in and help, and I have. If you don't think you physically measure up to the task find someone who is, rally people to the cause. If there is a group standing around surely someone wants to help, but maybe doesn't know if they will be supported by others. Only one way to find out. And for the love of god people, you know the society we live in, take steps to protect yourselves.

  • lee du ploy

    Its well known and documented ( Stockholm syndrome)that we react to agression by either complying or confronting.......however when the odss are too great we calculate what works for us through self preservation and do are led by the majority,so if no one steps forward to help, no one else will.

    However I have seen a situation in London on the tube( metro) where a woman was attacked by three men nobody initially helped untill another woman attacked the guys with an umbrella when the whole carraige joined in not only saving the woman but severely and savagely beating the men.

    The cathartic and collective effect was palpalable, it shows how near the surface our aggression is hidden,often by educated cultural supression.

    You may remember Charles Bronson and the vigilante movies,they were popular because most of us are looking for someone to step for and revenge on our behalf.

    The media has also to take blame for glorifying aggresive incidents by over reproting thus " cause and effect" copycat situations whereby people feel and justify ation by what they presume to be "just cause"

    The bystander effect proves one thing if nothing else,that we have become so conditioned by violence that we fear everything and in the event of us confronted by it we choose not to intervene in case.

    lee du ploy

  • Beth

    I would certainly do something to help. I can't imagine myself standing by and allowing another human being to be hurt. One would think (and hope) that people would try and put a stop to another's suffering.

    I saw an experiment done for a telelvision show once. It was nothing as serious as this and was completely staged. A young man was out on the streets in only his underwear, with a collar around his neck and being hazed by other students. Most people just walked by and said nothing. One even laughed. Kind of disheartening...Finally a young girl stepped up and told them to stop this behavior, that it was cruel and sadistic. Most did nothing, though. Kind of sad...

  • Cathy

    As I thought about this, a tv program I saw had came to mind and although it doesn't fit, it does at the same time. They did this "experiment" where they had children pretend to be lost, some crying and they observed the reactions of the passerbys. Not many paid any attention at all to the children, maybe glanced and kept walking. One day when I was in the yard next to a fairly busy street, I heard someone blowing the horn on their car, they just kept blowing it and it annoyed me so I went to check it out and see what their problem was. There were probably three cars lined up and a little girl probably not more than 3 years old, standing in front of the first car and the ##### person in the car just kept blowing his horn. The little girl was just frozen in place. Oh, great I thought, so I went and picked up the little girl and luckily an older lady came out of her house across the street, and said she knew where the little girl lived and she took her back to a little house behind her house to her mother. They were blowing their horns like the little girl was a dog! On another occasion in another town, it was very quiet and I was taking my son and dog out for a walk. Normally a busy street, there was dead silence. Out of no where a little boy in a diaper and pajama top runs into the street. I'm thinking, "Oh, no what am I am going to do with him." Well, the obvious answer is to help him in what way I could be, what if someone thinks I was stealing the child." So, I pick up the little boy and go back to my house and saw a neighbor and asked him to watch the boys on the porch and go inside to call the police. The police assure me it will be a little bite before they can come but no one was going to think I kidnapped the little boy. I think a lot of times that you really don't know what you would do until you are in the situation. I don't see the world becoming a better place.

  • Laura

    I think just like with learning first aid, you may never need to use it, but the information is in your head to use if needed. Same thing, if you have already thought about these situations you are more likely to help out than if you have never thought about it. If you have already said to yourself there is NO way I could just stand there and watch or just walk away when someone is in trouble, then you will more be more likely to stand up and say something or stop and help, because you have already made that decision in a non threatening moment.

  • michael

    I'm reading a lot of the comments, and sure they're great, but to me it seems a lot of it is just talk (I'm refering to the ones who are 'sure' they would step in). I would have to say you don't know until you're put in a situation where you are the bystander. For me, I surely used to say "Oh yea for sure i'd help them out", but then one day I was hit with a similar situation. One night as I was driving down an near-empty road, I saw a taxi cab with his emergency lights flashing (not the usual emergency lights, but the ones that say to call 911 when they flash). My first reaction was "i don't want to get mixed up into anything", and "Oh, someone else will call 911". However, fortunately a conversation (similar to this one) that I had with my friend earlier hit me. That's when I realized, "okay maybe the car behind me is thinking the same thing", so I dialed 911, and told them the situation. Now what I am trying to say is that you truely don't know how you are going to react until you're hit with such a situation. For me, it was only a minor situation, I didn't see any weapons and there were only a few people out (so the doesn't apply here). However, I am curious to see how one (esp myself) would react if there were more people, and/or if there was a weapon involved in the situation.

  • David P Mcmullan

    Its scary to think that you could be attacked in daylight with witnesses and not be helped. Is this a sign of the times?

  • Amaju lincoln

    in order not to be endangered , i will rather call the police and notify them about the incidence. a young man was robbed on a process of helping a cripple man who was shouting for help without knowing that the disabled man was one of the gang. But i will always intervene in any situation within my power to render a help.

  • Cori

    I remember once, my mother and I went past a burning house in a car. Everyone was just standing around, looking at it. I yelled out to call the police, and she said no, because someone else probably did. Another time, I have witnessed a woman being beat across the street, in front of her child. After begging my mother to call the police because she wouldn't let me, she finally did. The police did nothing, as they thought nothing really happened. While I understand this effect, I couldn't just stand around and not do anything.

  • Blob

    Anyone who doesn't step in is frankly cowardly. Call the police as well if you want, but they are not limitless, they may not have an officer spare (or a car spare) and even if they do, they may be too late.

  • Sidra Ahmed

    The question is, what do you do in a country where the police is actively involved in the crime? Who do you call? Recently, in Pakistan, 2 brothers had their arms and feet bound by police men, and then they were beaten up with hockey sticks in the center of a town square while over a hundred people watched and did nothing...they even took cell phone videos. At the end, they were not satisfied they paraded the bodies around the town with police escorts!! It is so disgusting and tragic...I cannot stop thinking about it...I imagine myself in the crowd and I feel helpless...surely if i had tried to stop them, the crowd would gang up on me...there is no 911 to respond because the police was already technically there :( I am wondering what the solution is for such a sick country.. :(((

  • Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

    Hello Sidra,

    You make an important point and we, here, need to be reminded that, in other nations, the police themselves can be the problem. In a democratic society where rights are protected, civilians can call the police and try to help. In other nations, there are real risks involved. The same in China. People have the right to complain to their local representatives about local services and problems. If they do, they are arrested. Why? Each local representave wants to project the image to Bejing that all is good.

    Thank you for your excellent comment.

    Dr. Schwartz

  • O P

    A worrying extension to point 3. is the knowledge that if you do take the initiative to help and as a result become the target of aggression, the previous actions of the passive bystanders mean it would seem unlikely you would receive any help yourself.

    With this in mind, I feel uncomfortable joining the (statistically improbably) large group of commenters who would offer aid instinctively however, I hope that with the knowledge of these cases of collective dissociation such as Kitty Genovese, the realisation of the consequences of inactivity would drive myself and others like me to be proactive.

    It is important to be aware of the Bystander Effect so that you can avoid being part of it.

  • Anonymous-2

    You think you would step in and help if someone was getting hurt, but when the time comes, you don't. i disslike attenchon drawn to myself, but if it was someone i knew, hated or liked, i think i would help...but at the same time, i might not. You never know until the event ACTUALLY happens.

  • lee du ploy

    My current research involves searching for answers to 'Prosopagnosia" or debilitating non facial recognition , which is comon in Hong Kong.

    I have just completed a series of case studies published in my book, see title

    Imagine for a moment that you no longer have the ability to recognise your loved ones, even your closest friends.

    We take the ability that we recognises faces for granted, I would be very interested in comments regarding this condition elsewhere.

    Forgive me for deviating from the proposed subject in this forum Allan , but research and comment in what ever form is valuable.

    lee du ploy (hk)

  • lee du ploy

    The recent riots in London proved that we can no longer confine our attitude and streotype rioters based on cultural assumptions.

    The participants ( for want of a better word ) came from all walks of life , some middle class , educated backgrounds.

    However surprisingly few who participated (if any ) were Chinese, which brings me to the question and answer.

    I live and work in Hong Kong , people are law abiding and mostly honest, that is in a city of seven million people confined in a small space.

    Interesting , no?

    lee du ploy .

  • YouMadBro

    when someone is in need of help.. do the right thing and help that person.. i couldnt just stand there and watch someone get hurt. i personally would help anyone and if i died in the means of helping that person then i guess i die but standing around watching shows cowardness.. if you were the one being hurt you would hope that someone would be there to help you. if you have the guts to look at them in the eyes while they are getting hurt and you continue walking you can go burn in hell.

  • Marge

    I have a strong moral obligation to help in some way if someone urgently needs help. I have gone out of my way to help people who needed it. I have been critisized for doing so, but at least the "golden rule" is my reality. My trouble is this. . . I expect others to do the same. When they don't, I get very angry. I think of them as undeserving barbarians who should be cast out into the wilderness away from the "safety of civilisation".My emotions are on the surface this morning. The news reported that a woman was walking home from a grocery store when a pit bull dog saw her from its yard. The dog jumped the fence, ran across the wide street to where she was, knocked her down and proceeded to maul the woman. She screamed and cried for help. A number of people heard and surrounded the macbre play, but only one was willing to help. The others preferred to just watch the carnage. The guy who was willing to help repeatedly asked the others to help him get the dog off of woman and see to her needs. They did nothing. Fortunately for the woman, the guy who was willing to help was equipped with an aluminum baseball bat. I imagine that he gave the dog a few good "braining" whacks, because it stopped attacking the woman. Animal control eventually arrived to take it away. Paramedics came to speed the woman away fro immediate treatment. The very fortunate woman is hospitalized with serious wounds but her injuries are not life threatening. I wonder if the do nothing bystanders need to be thrust into the role of victim to understand that we are all here to help each other? Maybe I'm not the normal one. I'd rather be abnormal than to assume the role of a dumb-ass complacent sheep. . . . . Yesterday, my oldest daughter and I were discussing this very subject after she came home from class. Moral Relativism vs moral obligation. . . . I am deeply troubled by its increasing rarity these days.

  • Kimmie

    If I saw a group attacking someone and I didn't attempt to help in someway-atleast call the police, get proper attention, I'd never forgive myself. How can you watch someone be beaten or raped and still sleep at night?