It is not human nature to run towards trouble, but instead away from it. Human beings possess an innate sense that requires them to bear witness to tragedy, drama, and triumph alike, but does not force them into action. There are exceptions to the rule without a doubt, though these are relatively few and in most cases will inspire others to act. Without those who work against their own nature as human beings however the inactivity and inability to intervene when needed is a very human characteristic. It is easier to stand by and do nothing than it is to intervene on the behalf of another.
How anyone could stand by when another is in need is a question that is often posed and rarely answered. The bystander effect is defined as the occurrence of nearby witnesses not responding to the need of a victim when they are perfectly capable. It is typically affected by diffusion of responsibility as well as the perceived or real view of others upon the actions of those who would seek to offer help. In other words, people do not help the victim in need solely because they are worried about how the general public will view their actions.
This effect was developed by noted psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley not long
after the 1964 killing of New York resident Kitty Genovese took place (Manning, Lavine, &
Collins, 2007). There were reportedly 38 bystanders that watched as she was brutally murdered
in the street only a short ways from her apartment building, and not a one of them called the
police or went to help. Despite the obvious need, Kitty Genovese fell victim not only to her
attacker, but to the diffusion effect that occurs within a group of bystanders as each one expects
the next person to do something about the present situation. Each person in this case was
assessing what their neighbors would do, how they would react, and if someone would step in.
While many would call this gross negligence and even in some far-flung cases aiding and
abetting, it is a very common occurrence in the face of adversity.
Fear is a large part of what keeps people from acting instead of turning away. Ignorance is another part, but is not as easily explained or excused. In many cases, and particularly in this day and age, the bystander effect is a product of not knowing whether what is seen is real or not. What might seem as a serious predicament to one person might seem to little more than a normal argument to another. One of the main problems with the bystander effect lays in the perception of the events taking place. The fear of stepping into a scenario that is largely unknown and offers too many unknown variables can cause most individuals to keep a safe distance.
Anomalies do exist in which someone will seek to aid another in need whether there is a crowd or not. More often than not however this act of kindness will have something to do with the individual seeing something in the victim that sets them apart, a feeling that they know or can relate to the person who is need of help. The average person as it has been found will simply allow the victimization to occur, figuring that someone else will take over and assist the victim. The larger the group, the less people tend to help, while the fewer people that are around it is more likely that assistance will be given.
The reasons for the bystander effect taking place are simple enough that many would think they would be easily overcome. However in such cases as is described with Kitty Genovese, many people have their own reasons for not helping. For example when in noted gang territories where said gangs have a strong tie to their neighborhood, there are instances in which crimes will be committed and no one will bother helping or even reporting the incident for fear of reprisals. Many people wish to remain apart from such acts out of concern for their own welfare as well as those around them.
Another reason for the prevalence of the bystander effect is that at times people do not
have a clue as to what is going on. If bystanders have no idea as to what is happening it is often difficult to know what to do, or even how to react. There are moments when the perceived violence might actually be a prank, in which case people in the current day and age have come to believe that simply staying away is the best chance of not being publicly embarrassed for being decent. Another reason in the same regard could also be that people do not have a firm grasp as to why the event they are witnessing is happening, and thus cannot decide whose aid to come to.
Yet another reason why individuals do nothing during a crisis in their midst is the very
real probability of fear that results in shock. While violence is glorified on television and in movies it is still alien enough to many individuals that when it does occur they have no other recourse but to stop and stare. In those moments they are shocked into disbelief that they are actually witnessing the same type of violence that they see acted out on a daily basis. The act of true violence is not as debilitating for many individuals, but for those who do not experience such on a daily basis, of which there are still many, the acts of violence that take place in society often leave them stunned.
Popular media has depicted the bystander effect in regards to communities in which gangs and other notorious organizations discourage any would-be heroes. The bystander effect in this case is out of fear and self-preservation, which easily translates to real life. Many people do not wish to jeopardize their own health or that of their family in an attempt to help another they do not know. In many cases it is deemed safer by the individual to stay out of the way and allow matters to simply take their course.
Another issue relating to the bystander effect that affects the general populace is the
prevalence of studies, tests, and poorly conducted exercises that are conducted to help
researchers better understand the bystander effect or other similar conditions. When people are
subjected to the false emergencies that are perpetrated by those who are in no way in danger or dire straits they become leery of helping anyone for fear of looking foolish. The stigma that is attached to being singled out in such a manner affects many people and can therefore contribute to the bystander effect by creating a strengthened wall of indifference that shields people from what they figure might be a hoax.
The bystander effect takes hold of many people, creating a disconnect between what they
know is wrong and their ability to do something about it. Be it the shock, the disbelief, or even
the fear of acting out on behalf of another, many people will simply do nothing when they know
deep down that they should act. Yet for all that many people actively condemn those who do nothing in cases such as that of Kitty Genovese, when 38 people watched her being brutally murdered. The hypocrisy of the bystander effect is undoubtedly one of its more prevailing characteristics.
Those who seek to condemn others for failing to act in the face of danger and
wrongdoing are often those who act much the same if not worse when presented with a difficult
to dangerous situation. It is easy to berate another for their lack of action, but much harder to set
the example that is so sorely needed in society. The bystander effect is a societal disorder of sorts that affects most people, locking them into place when they know that to act might just save the life of another. To counter the bystander effect takes conscious effort, and many who witness violent acts seem unable, or unwilling, to train themselves in such a manner.
Modifying behavior to fit into the crowd is a natural characteristic of human beings and is
done out of necessity (Gottlieb & Carver, 1980). In order to fit in, to not stand out and thereby
become a target of either ridicule or other negative attentions, people will in times of an
emergency fade into the background rather than step forward when there is a crowd of people to
watch. Without the social pressure, imagined or not, present individuals will be far more likely to help those in need. The need to be a part of society and not an individual is considered a more desirable state in such cases.
However, the bystander effect can harm those who fall prey to its habits as well. The
effect that keeps people from helping others can also keep them from seeking out opportunities
and advantages in life if no one around them seeks the same thing. For example, in an office
building if a single person believes they deserve a raise but no one else around them is receiving
one, they will likely not ask. This is the bystander effect as well, conforming to the crowd rather
than daring to stand out and be noticed.
Deindividuation is the process by which self-awareness becomes less important in favor of blending into the crowd. Giving in to the will of society is much the same as it involves doing whatever is socially acceptable rather than what many would perceive as right. In going with the flow so to speak the bystander effect is reinforced as a means of establishing the norm for society. In adhering to deindividuation people find that they are better able to turn away and follow the crowd instead of their own conscience.
The bystander effect tends to enter many more life circumstances and affects many
people in different ways, be it work, relationships, or even how content they are with their lives.
In refusing to speak up for fear that society might find the individual odd, out of sorts, or
otherwise alienated in some way, many people simply go along with the will of the crowd. In
this manner it is seen that the bystander effect swiftly begins to rule the lives of many
individuals, forcing them to keep quiet and go with the crowd rather than be noted as unique,
caring, and able to speak out or help those in need. The bystander effect is among the deepest rooted psychological effects in history, and one that has been prevalent for a very long time.
Society and its many stigmas concerning the bystander effect have over time developed
into one of the many Catch-22 circumstances that exist in society today. People are criticized for
not helping those in need, but are also singled out and even ridiculed for the same action in other
cases. There is no way to eliminate the effect in a social situation, no matter that half of a given crowd will lean one way while the other half leans the other. An individual is only safe when their own convictions are strong enough to withstand public scrutiny and their conscience firm enough that they refuse to watch another suffer.
The level of deindividuation that occurs in groups is easily countered by the single individual that seeks to help or speak out. Once that individual escapes the mentality that someone else will take control of the situation, others tend to follow. Only those with absolutely no convictions or the mentality that prevents them from caring about another person will tend to remain stoic in their desire to remain on the sidelines. Bit by bit this is how the bystander effect is eliminated and society is regained, though it is a hard and often temporary gain.
Most people when asked would claim that they wish to do the right thing, which in the
case of anyone in trouble would be to stop and help. But the question of how many would follow
up on their words depends largely upon how many people are present to take note of their actions
and perhaps comment upon them. When smaller numbers are present it is more likely that
people will seek to care and invest at least a portion of their time into the individual that needs
help and to at least attempt to alleviate their situation. When larger crowds are present it is still
possible, but not as likely. Unfortunately this behavior can often be found to harm the
bystanders as well as the victims who receive no help.
Self-awareness is one of the greatest tools to use against the bystander effect, as it enables
individuals to act on their conscience, not the will of the crowd. The public outcry for such
action in times of great need is often heard within the halls of society as a type of lip service to show that efforts are being made to bring society to greater awareness of the dangers that lie in inaction. Unfortunately those who cry the loudest for a public reaction are often those who do the least, allowing their words to fade and virtually disappear once their listeners have departed. Such individuals often pay such attention to the issues at hand in an attempt to gain the popularity of the crowd and little else, which only enables the bystander effect and continues its uncertain cycle.
The reaction of the public to the brutal slaying of Kitty Genovese and many others throughout history has been one of shock, outrage, and even a brief hint of actions to be taken in response to such actions. But thanks to the bystander effect this action swiftly fades and becomes yet another person’s problem, returning to the norm through inaction and diffusion of responsibility. The act of taking responsibility for one’s neighbors and their well-being is seen as a burden to many individuals, and one that many more are not willing to spend the extra energy to maintain. Someone else will take care of those in need, or someone else must take the reins and push forward, that is the public attitude in regards to tragedy, hardship, and struggle.
It is abhorrent to think that the case of Kitty Genovese and many others could occur in plain sight, but it is a testament to humanity and their need to consider how they will look in front of others. That is the bystander effect on a grand scale.
Much of the bystander effect has to do with convenience and conformity that is so prevalent in society. It is far easier to go along than push against in terms of society. Unfortunately this enables one person to look to another, and those in turn to look to another to solve the problems of the world. Despite the ease of such an action, looking away only worsens any situation.
Gottlieb, J. & Carver, C.S. (1980). Anticipation of future interaction and the bystander effect.
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 16(3): 253-260.
Manning, R.; Lavine, M. & Collins, A. (2007). The Kitty Genovese Murder and the Psychology
of Helping: The Parable of the 38 Witnesses. American Psychologist, 62(6): 555-562.