What the bystander effect looks like

A little after 3 a.m. on March 13, 1964, Catherine “Kitty” Genovese parked her car and walked to her apartment in Queens, New York, after finishing her shift as a bar manager.

Serial killer Winston Moseley was out to victimize someone that night. Genovese became his target. When he followed her, she ran.

As Moseley reached her and began stabbing her with a hunting knife, Genovese screamed, “Oh, my God, he stabbed me! Help me! Help me!”

When lights in surrounding apartments flipped on and one man called out his window, the attacker ran and hid in the shadows. But no one came out to help. So Moseley returned and finished stabbing, then robbed and raped Genovese. She continued to cry for help. The attack lasted about 30 minutes. As many as 38 people may have witnessed Genovese’s murder. Not one stepped outside to help her.

There was widespread public condemnation of the witnesses who did not come to Kitty Genovese’s aid. The incident also gave rise to an entire area of psychological research to determine why some bystanders help and why others don’t.

The related terms “bystander effect” and “diffusion of responsibility” were coined by social psychologists as a result of this research.

The bystander effect describes situations in which a group of bystanders witness harm being done, yet do nothing to help or stop the harmful activity.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, a bystander is present at 70 percent of assaults and 52 percent of robberies. The percentage of people who help a victim varies widely, by the type of crime, the environment, and other key variables.

The bystander effect can occur with many types of violent and nonviolent crimes. It encompasses behaviors such as bullying, cyber bullying, or drunk driving, and societal issues such as damage to property or the environment.

If witnesses to an incident are in a group, they assume others will take action. The more witnesses there are, the less likely it is that anyone will act. Individual responsibility becomes group responsibility.

In a well-known study, researchers found that, when bystanders were alone, 75 percent helped when they thought a person was in trouble. However, when a group of six people were together, only 31 percent helped.

Being part of a group often diminishes one’s sense of personal responsibility. Instead, there’s a feeling of anonymity. In this state, people are more likely to do things they would never do individually. This deindividuation, or perceived loss of individuality, is often associated with mob actions or notorious massacres.

Witnesses to Kitty Genovese’s murder gave excuses such as, “I didn’t want to get involved,” and “I thought it was just a lovers’ quarrel.”

Common reasons for not coming to the aid of a victim include:

  • fear that the personal risk of harm is too great
  • feeling that one doesn’t have the strength or other traits needed in order to be able to help
  • assuming that others are better qualified to help
  • watching the reactions of other witnesses and assuming the situation is not as serious as you initially thought because they don’t seem alarmed
  • fear of becoming the target of aggression or bullying

You are more likely to act if it’s clear to you that the victim needs help. For instance, some of the witnesses to Kitty Genovese’s murder could not see the attacks well and were uncertain if she was really being injured.

You may also be more likely to help if you:

  • know the victim
  • have training in personal defense
  • have medical training or experience
  • been a victim at one time, especially if the perpetrator was caught and held responsible
  • think the person is deserving of help

We all have the ability to overcome the bystander effect. In the larger picture, get to know your neighbors and keep an eye out for their well-being. Speak with a coworker who seems troubled or distressed. Listen and learn people’s stories.

Personally, you can practice reaching out to others in need. Become a volunteer. Set an example for your family and friends.

Ultimately, by helping others, you benefit, too. In fact, when you do good things for others, it activates the part of your brain responsible for your reward system and activity is reduced in the areas in your brain linked to stress.

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