What is Bystander Effect?
The Bystander effect is a phenomenon in which people are less likely to help someone in an emergency due to the presence of the people (bystanders) around them. The phenomenon of the bystander effect was first explained by two psychologists named John Darley and Bibb Latané in 1968. Darley and Latané proposed that with the increase in the number of people around the person in the emergency, the people become less likely to help the one in need. The framework of Darley and Latané method to analyse the bystanders guided the social psychologists to study the behaviour of the people in the laboratory settings.
Real-Life Examples of Bystander Effect
1. The Kitty Genovese Case
The Kitty Genovese Case is the most famous example of the bystander effect. The Kitty Genovese incident took place in the Kew Gardens, Queens, New York. A girl named Catherine Genovese was walking to her home after work at 3:15 am on 13 March 1964. A heavy machine operator named Winston Moseley stabbed the Genovese, she collapsed and screamed for help, several neighbours residing in the building heard her voice but nobody came for her help. Reportedly, one man looked from his window and shouted at the Moseley to stay away from the girl. This scared the man for a while, and he left. The Genovese was crawling across the road to her apartment but nobody helped her in that situation. According to the witnesses, Moseley came back after around 10 minutes, stabbed Genovese and then raped her. He also stole her cash and then fled. This whole incident took place in around 30 minutes. This news was published on the front of The New York Times, it was mentioned that around 37 People saw the incident but nobody came for help. When the culprit was asked that why he committed that crime, he said that he just wanted to kill any woman that day, and when bystanders were asked that why they didn’t help the girl, they said that they didn’t want to get involved in the situation, and they assumed that someone else would help the girl.
2. The Richmond High School Case
This is the case of a 15 years old girl (name unknown), who was brutally raped and savagely beaten by around 10 men, on 24 October 2009. This incident took place for about 2 and a half hours. This happened during the Homecoming dance party of the high school. It was reported that around 10 other people were standing around the crime scene, and instead of helping the girl, they all were clicking the pictures and making videos of the incident on their mobiles. The number of people increase around the crime location but none of them had informed the police. No one from the campus informed the security guard. In the CCTV recording, it was observed that the assistant principal of that school peeped through his office window and saw around 12 to 15 men near the crime scene. All these men were without the identification badges, which is required in the school premises, and none of the men was appearing like a teenager, but the assistant principal did not alert the security and police, and he went back to his work. Later, when a nearby resident heard about the incident, he called the police, and the girl was then taken to the hospital. This incident shook the people and many social researchers that why nobody helped the victim. When asked by a bystander, he said that
They were kicking her in her head and they were beating her up, robbing her and ripping her clothes off; it’s something you can’t get out of your mind. I saw people, like, dehumanizing her; I saw some pretty crazy stuff. She was pretty quiet; I thought she was like the dead for a minute but then saw her moving around. I feel like I could have done something but I don’t feel like I have any responsibility for anything that happened.”
The culprits were later convicted and sentenced after the arrest.
3. Kevin Carter’s Photograph
The bystander effect can also be understood from the story behind a Pulitzer winning photograph of a South African photojournalist, Kevin Carter. He clicked this photograph in March 1993. This photograph represents the brutality and suffering of the people of sub-Saharan Africa. In this photograph, a female toddler is attempting to crawl towards the nearby rescue centres for food and shelter, and a vulture is standing behind her, waiting to eat the toddler when she dies. It was claimed by the carter that he waited for about 20 minutes to get the picture of the vulture with the spread wings that he thought would be a better picture, but it didn’t happen and he took the picture. The female toddler wanted the food and was trying to reach the aid station, but Kevin carter did not help, he just waited there for 20 minutes to get the shot of the vulture with open wings. After taking the shot, he flew the vulture away from the girl and left her as it is. Later, upon asking carter that why he did not help the girl, he said that
I didn’t want to get involved.”
4. Khaseen Morris Case
A 16-year-old high school student, Khaseen Morris was told to visit a mall at some specific time by his friends on 17 September 2019. The moment Khaseen reached there, he was attacked by a group of teenagers. He was repeatedly stabbed in his chest by the teenagers. The injuries were so brutal that he died in the hospital that night. The incident took place in the daylight and several videos were found on the internet of the whole incident. No one bothered to intervene in the situation to help the boy apart from capturing the incident into their mobiles. This incident clearly represents the lack of humanity and the impact of the bystander effect.
5. Ilan Halimi Case
A French Jew named Ilan Halimi was kidnapped by Moroccan Barbarians in Paris on 21 January 2006. During the kidnapped period Ilan was beaten by around 20 people, his head was completely wrapped in duct tape just leaving the mouth area so that he could eat and breathe. He was burned with the lighters and cigarettes; they broke his fingers and scratched him with knives. He was savagely tortured for 24 days, and then they set him afire by pouring gasoline on him, and eventually, he died on 13 February. The neighbours heard the screaming sounds of the Ilam, and some even came to watch, but no one dared to help him. Later, his body was found tied with a tree with the nylon rope. His body was found burned more than 80%, and it was difficult to recognize him.
6. Shanda Sharer Case
A 12-year-old girl Shanda Sharer was kidnapped by 4 teenage girls named Melinda Loveless, Laurie Tackett, Toni Lawrence, and Hope Rippey. Laurie Tackett was the leader of the group, she was the one who drew the other girls into witchcraft, satanism, and other such things. She planed to kidnap the Sharer and murder her for the revenge of stealing Melinda’s girlfriend. The girls invited the Sharer to meet a mutual friend Amanda, the girlfriend that Melinda believed that Sharer had stolen. When Sharer entered the car, Melinda put a knife on Sharer’s throat and started asking her about Amanda. Later, they took Sharer to a house and tied her there, Melinda and Lauries started discussing the way to kill Sharer, and Melinda had even started beating Sharer brutally. While investigating, Toni and Hope said that they got frightened at this situation and wanted to get out of there but neither did they run away nor did they inform the police. Out of fear of the passing headlights, the girls took Melinda to the nearby forest, where Melinda tried to cut the throat of Sharar, but she couldn’t as the knife was not that sharp. The girls thought that Sharar is dead, and left her in the trunk of Laurie’s car. All the girls went to Laurie’s House to take a bath. Laurie and Melinda heard the screams of the Sharer, and they saw that Sharer is trying to escape from the trunk. Laurie then beat sharer with the tire iron. The Laurie called Toni and Hope too, and they were shocked to see Sharar’s situation, but they still did not dare to leave her friends. The girls then took Sharer again to the forest and Melinda laid the sharer on a blanket and poured the gasoline on Sharer and set her afire alive. Toni was so scared at this moment, out of fear she did not call the police, but she told the whole crime to another friend. Melinda was also feeling disgusted at what she did, and she called Amanda to tell her what she did. Amanda did not believe her until she saw the trunk of Laurie’s car with Sharar’s socks and bloodstains. Later, Sharar’s body was found by two hunters, who then reported to the police.
7. Raymond Jack Case
It is an incident of a 53-year-old resident of Alameda, California named Raymond Zack. In 2011, on Memorial Day, he entered the Robert Crown Memorial Beach and stood neck deep there for around an hour. Dolores Berry, his foster mother called the police and said that Zack is trying to do suicide. The police and firefighters arrived at the beach but none dared to enter the water. As per the police reports, the police expected that the firefighters should enter the water. When firefighters were asked to help they said that they don’t have enough training to perform that rescue. Many civilians were present at the beach, but nobody entered the water as they were expecting that the authorities will conduct the rescue. The firefighters informed the United States Coast Guard about the situation. Later, Zack fell down in the water, possibly because of hypothermia. Lastly, a good samaritan took the initiative and pulled the Zack out of the water. Afterwards, Zack died at a local hospital.
8. The Digital or the Modern Bystander
With the rise in the impact of social media on people’s lives, the influence of the bystander effect has also evolved on the digital platform. The social media platforms allow us to get aware of the injustice happening in the nearby or the faraway places. The impact of the bystander effect on social platforms is even more than the real world as one can not see that how other people are physically reacting to the given situation. The impact of the virtual bystander can be understood through an example of a case that occurred in 2017. In this case, the sexual assault of a teenage girl by a group of five men was Live broadcast on Facebook. Reportedly, it was viewed by 40 people, yet no one cared to inform the police. Another Facebook Live broadcast of a man with a mental disability being tortured by a group of people received some disapproving comments, but no one informed the police. There are numerous such examples that we witness on social media platforms such as cyberbullying, but we as digital bystanders usually do nothing.
Explanation of the Bystander Effect
There are various factors that are responsible for the bystander effect. Let us discuss the important factors that affect the bystanders in taking decisions that whether they want to help someone or not.
1. Pluralistic Ignorance
The decision that an individual take before helping someone is not just a simple yes or no. In fact, the person analyses a set of questions before getting into the situation. Sometimes one urgently needs to help in the given situation, and sometimes the circumstances are ambiguous, and the helper has the time to decide that whether he/she can help the person in need or not. For example, a person jumped from the subway platform to help an unknown person, who fall on the subway track. In these ambiguous situations, the potential helpers primarily look at the other people actions, and then they decide their own actions. In reality, almost every person looks around to analyse others actions, and no one acts. The situation in which every person is relying on the other to define the given situation and conclude whether to act or not in that situation is known as pluralistic ignorance. Due to pluralistic ignorance, people are less likely to help others as almost every person is looking for the other person to act first. Let’s understand it with an example, imagine that you are alone in the laboratory, and suddenly you hear the sound of the blast outside. As you are alone, you may get scared first, but you are more likely to go and investigate the cause of the blast. On the other hand, when you are in a group, you are more likely to see others’ reactions instead of going alone to check the situation. If the others also calmly looking at others, then chances are that no one will go to check out. The bystanders thus interpret the information that the given situation is not an emergency and hence, no help is required. The important factor that guides pluralistic ignorance is that the other people are in view of the individual.
2. Social Influence or Social Inhibition
It is one of the main factors that influence the bystander effect. People are generally concerned about that how the people in their surrounding perceives them. The people do not help the ones in need as they want to avoid the attention of the people around them. As per a study, people fear being judged by others, and this factor rises even more when the people around you are strangers. So they usually do not get involved in any situation where they have to make different decisions than their surrounding people.
3. Diffusion of Responsibility
Unlike, Plutarlistic ignorance, the diffusion of responsibility does not require the other person in the direct view of each other. One just needs to believe that the other people are there to help the person in need as discussed in the case of Kitty Genovese murder. If the person is alone around the person in need, the responsibility of helping the needy person is solely based on that individual only. It may seem that when there are more people around the victim the chances of the victim receiving the help also increase, while what happens in actuality is generally the opposite. It happens because of the individual’s belief that others are there to help, which reduces the personal responsibility of the individual to help the one in need, and hence the bystander do not get involved in the situation, this phenomenon is called the diffusion of responsibility.
4. The Cost and Rewards of Helping
According to a psychology professor, John F. Dovidio, The analysis of taking the decisions in the given scenario is largely dependent upon the cost-effect benefits of the person. People usually prefer to help if the helping does not involve much money, time, risks, or other resources. It is easy to drop your friend at the station than confronting the murderer and saving someone’s life. The possible rewards of helping the person also is an important factor. If the helpful act is recognized by the people or the chances of receiving the appreciation or cash rewards the person is more likely to help. It may sound weird but the potential helper considers the economy of helping first before helping anyone, i.e., the helper consider the benefits and possible rewards of the helpful act, the individual is less likely to help if the cost is greater than the rewards, and the individual is more likely to help if the rewards are more than the cost.
5. Cultural Differences
In most situations, the involvement of the cultural factors is also seen. There are numerous examples available that shows that people belonging to the same caste, religion, or ethnicity are more likely to help each other; however, the chances of help is comparatively less when the bystander and the victim belong to different cultures or nation.
6. Understanding of the Environment
The decision of the helper for doing the help or not also depends upon the familiarity of an individual with the location where the situation occurs. If the bystander is well known of the surrounding environment, and he/she knows that from where the help can be obtained, the individual is more likely to help. On the other hand, if the individual is not much aware of the surrounding environment he/she usually does not get involved in the situation. Imagine, you have just landed in a foreign country and saw a robber just snatched the wallet of a lady and is running, now if you have been aware of the surroundings then chances are that your might run behind the robber, but you are most likely to ignore the situation as you are not familiar with the surroundings.
Ambiguity is also one of the factors that impact the behaviour of the bystander in an emergency situation. In case of emergencies of high ambiguity, the people take around five times more time to take action than the emergencies with low ambiguity. In high ambiguity situations, the bystander thinks about his/her own safety first before taking action. People usually intervene in situations of low ambiguity.
8. Emergency vs Non-Emergency Situations
To test the behaviour of the bystanders in case of non-emergencies, three experiments were conducted by Latanné and Darley. The researchers thus concluded that the decisions of the bystanders for helping or not helping in the given situation depends upon the way the help is being asked from them. In one experiment the subjects had to ask for the names of the bystanders. It was observed that most of the bystanders provided their names only when the subjects provided them with their names first. In another study, the subjects asked for some money from the bystanders. It was found that when the subjects gave the bystanders a brief explanation of their reason for asking the money such as their wallet is lost or they need money to eat, the percentage of people who gave the money was around 72%, and when the subjects did not provide any reason, the percentage was reduced to 34%.
According to Latanne and Darley, the factors that guide the bystanders are,
- Situations that involve the harm
- Rare and unusual Emergencies
- The nature of help required is different in different situations
- One can not predict or expect the emergencies
- Immediate action is needed in emergencies.
Decision Making by the Bystanders
Latanné and Darley concluded that bystanders go through various behavioural and cognitive processes before making a decision. The five main characteristics are notice, interpretation, degree of responsibility, form of assistance, implementation.
Latanné and Darley (1968) did an experiment to understand the phenomenon of ‘noticing.’ They conducted a smoke experiment with the help of students of Columbia University. In this experiment, the students were asked to fill a questionnaire either alone in a room, with two strangers with them, or with three strangers with them. While they were filling the questionnaire, smoke was filled in the room through a small vent by the experimenter. It was found that the students who were alone in the room reported the smoke in about 5 seconds, i.e., almost right at the moment when the fog started pumping into the room. While the students who were not alone in the room noticed the smoke in around 20 seconds. This led to the conclusion that an individual is more aware and notice things with more precision when he/she is alone, and become less conscious about his/her surroundings when he/she is in a group. Hence, an individual is more likely to notice and offer help to the one in need.
After noticing the situation, the bystander interprets the situation as emergency or non-emergency. In the smoke experiment as discussed above, the interpretation of the students about the fog situation as emergency or not was dependent upon the Social influence factor. The strangers, who were sitting with the subject was instructed by the experimenter not to do anything when they see fog, as they were not doing anything the students also noticed their actions and did not react to the situation as they interpreted it as a non-emergency situation. It found that only one student in the group reported the smoke in the first few minutes, five out of the eight groups had not reported the smoke. Upon asking, the students gave different explanations such as it could have been due to the AC leakage, or they thought that smoke is not because of the fire.
3. Degree of Responsibility
According to Latanné and Darley, the degree of responsibility about a situation felt by a bystander depends upon three factors, i.e.,
- Their assumption of the person as deserving or non-deserving of help
- The ability of the bystander to provide the required help
- The relation between the bystander and the person in need
4. Form of Assistance
It refers to the way the bystander provide help to the victim. It involves two types, i.e., Direct intervention and Detour Intervention. In Direct Intervention the bystander himself/herself directly helps the victim and in Detour intervention, the bystander reports about the emergency or the victim to the concerned authorities, i.e., police, hospital, or fire department.
The last and final step is the implementation of the action that the bystander has decided after going through all of the above steps.