The Bystander Effect

As members of civil society, we may assume that in an emergency, we would readily offer our help.  For example, if you passed a stranger having  a seizure in the street or you witnessed a racially motivated attack, we would all like to think we would help or be helped. However, research by psychologists and sociologists have come to the conclusion that this isn’t always the case due to a phenomenon known as the bystander effect.

What is the Bystander Effect?

The bystander effect simply refers to individuals who witness an emergency situation, yet fail to intervene due to the thought process that someone else present will. The likelihood of help being offered in these situations works in correlation to the amount of bystanders present; the fewer people around to help, the more likely help will be offered. An example of the bystander effect can be found in the 1964 murder of a woman called Kitty Genovese. Kitty was beaten and stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend when she returned home from work one night. Her screams and pleas for help were overheard by approximately 38 of her neighbours, but none intervened or even called the police. The next day, everyone wanted to know why.

Explanations of the Bystander Effect

Since the attack that horrified many, understandings of why such incidents could occur have been processed and academics have suggested explanations for this phenomenon.  The first explanation is diffusion of responsibility; assuming that other individuals present  will solve or help the situation. Thus, diminishing the responsibility of oneself. (Schwartz, & Gottlieb, 1976). When questioned why they didn’t intervene or call the police, Kitty Genovese’s neighbours simply stated they thought someone else would do it. The second explanation is feeling as though you have to behave within the social norms of your surroundings (Aronson et al., 2013). For example, if other passers-by fail to react to the incident, we conform and act as if nothing is wrong, imitating their behaviour. It is also believed that many are unsure of what is actually going on in these types of situations as they are ambiguous, meaning they wouldn’t feel comfortable getting involved. For example, in case the incident is just a ‘family argument’. Similarly, people have a tendency to not want to get involved in situations that they feel unprepared to handle. It is important to note that if you witness a violent incident, you should not intervene and make yourself a target of violence- always call for help from the police!

What do the experts say?

The first researchers to tackle the bystander effect were Latane and Darley (1968) who investigated how many individuals would report and help in a situation that demanded it. Within this 13 males and 59 females took part, as a result of completion they would receive credits for their course. The participants believed the aim of the experiment was to help provide information on possible problems that could occur for students moving to urban areas for the first time. Their responses would be kept confidential and it would simply involve sitting in a booth answering the questions through an intercom. During the experiment one participant who was also a confederate (an actor who is in on the psychological research!)  staged a seizure. The researchers manipulated the number of bystanders the individual thought were watching or listening and measured how long it took before the participant intervened. From this they found the majority of participants (85%) went to inform the researcher to help the student when they thought no one was watching, highlighting how they could not put the responsibility of the situation onto anyone else. However, only 31% sought to help when they thought there were at least four other bystanders, suggesting that the participants felt less responsible when surrounded by others, and likely assumed that someone else would step in and help instead.

What can you do?

If you believe you are witnessing a verbal or physical attack on an individual, there are a number of help-lines to call to safely help resolve these types of situations. If there is an immediate danger then 999 is the quickest and safest option. If you feel as though specialist advice is required or you know someone that has been a victim of the bystander effect and they feel as though they need personal advice, there are many websites and numbers available.

  • Stop Hate UK (24 Hour helpline)- 0800 138 1625
  • Tell MaMa (Measuring Anti- Muslim Attacks)- 0800 456 1226
  • Welsh Refugee Council- 02920 489 800
  • Albert Kennedy Trust (LGBT 16-25)- London- 020 7831 6562


If you are interested in researching the bystander effect in more detail, then here are some useful links to help!

Kitty Genovese

Latane and Darley

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