The Bystander Effect

I missed the memo about The Bystander Effect.

I think I was in my “Introduction to Psychology” class in high school when I first heard about the notorious murder of Kitty Genovese.

 In 1964, Ms. Genovese was stabbed to death in front of her apartment building in New York.  Police later learned that as many as 38 of her neighbors either saw or heard the attack, but only one called the police, and this call came too late to save her life. 

Like anyone, I was mystified as to how it could be that no one came to her aid.  She must have been literally screaming bloody murder and no one helped her.  Aren’t we supposed to be safer when lots of people are around?  Turns out, we’re not. 

Despite what your mother may have told you about driving along deserted roads, you’re statistically much better off getting a flat tire on a lonely stretch of highway than on a busy city street.  Counterintuitive and trippy, isn’t it?  But think about it…on a busy street, cars zip by, and everyone can convince themselves that someone else will stop to help, whereas, on the lonely road, if another motorist happens upon you, he or she will have some understanding that he or she is your only hope, so the sense of personal responsibility is greater.

The Bystander Effect describes the phenomenon that occurs when a group of people observe some kind of crisis.  When each person knows that others are also aware of the crisis, the sense of personal responsibility becomes diffuse.  Everyone somehow thinks that someone else will take the necessary action, and if everyone thinks that, no one acts. 

About 100 years ago when I was first getting CPR training, I got another memo on The Bystander Effect.  The trainer reminded us that upon coming upon a person in respiratory distress, the first thing we needed to do was to summon paramedics.  But the trainer made this key point:  Don’t say, “Someone call 911!”  Instead, identify a specific person, even if you don’t know them:  “Hey, you in the blue shirt!  Call 911!”  You make Mr. Blueshirt personally responsible for the call so he can’t assume that someone else will do it for him. 

In the last couple of days, we’ve all been awed by the destruction we’re seeing in Japan.  It’s terrible  beyond any words to describe it.  While Japan is a strong country of resourceful and resilient people, it needs help.    Don’t assume that everyone else will contribute to relief efforts. I entreat you, yes YOU, the one sitting at your computer reading these words, to do what you can.   The American Red Cross even makes it super easy…you can text the word “REDCROSS” to 90999 to donate $10 which will be billed to your cell phone account.  Text sent and memo received.

4 thoughts on “The Bystander Effect

  1. Ashley March 14, 2011 / 11:32 am

    I just finished watching one of the more devastating videos of the flooding and it left me reeling. And questioning what is really important, of course.

    And, since I know you like a challenge, I have heard recent reports (I think it was actually on NPR) contradicting the Kitty Genovese story as it is known. Not that she was murdered, of course, but that there could not have been as many witnesses due to the time and specific location that she was killed. I’ll see if I can find a link…

  2. Jamie Walker Ball March 14, 2011 / 1:21 pm

    It is fascinating that Kitty Genovese’s murder is still being studied nearly 50 years later. Some of the criticism I’ve read of the orginal coverage is that it was portrayed as though people heartlessly disregarded the situation. But it wasn’t about apathy or indifference…it’s about the curiously paralyzing effect that other people have on us in crisis situations. Whether there were 8 witnesses or 38, when one neighbor sees another open his window, he presumes that neighbor will help. What The Bystander Effect suggests is that we cannot presume.

  3. Jeff Hall March 22, 2011 / 5:48 pm

    There is a great documentary called “The Human Behavior Experiments” that looks at stories like Kitty Genovese and Abu Ghraib in the light of classic social psychological experiments like the Zombardo prison experiments at Stanford and Milgram’s obedience studies at Yale.

    It has always been amazing to me that human nature is willing to make so many allowances for evil for the sake of not rocking the social boat. Those that are seen as “other” or transgressive are almost immediately shunned and rejected, even when doing the most moral and most meaningful things.

  4. Jamie Walker Ball March 22, 2011 / 6:34 pm

    I wonder if that movie’s available on Netflix…I’ll have to check it out. Dr. Kerr would appreciate that we continue to mull this stuff over. This kind of stuff freaks me out and fascinates me, too.

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