What Is The Bystander Effect And Is It Dangerous?

Updated March 2, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Content/Trigger Warning: Please be advised the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include sexual assault & violence, which could potentially be triggering.

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What Is The Bystander Effect And How Does It Affect Society?

Screams of terror are heard for minutes on end. Some people are listening to the violence. They cover their ears; they blind their eyes. Each of them knows what's happening, but they don't do anything about it. Not because of the fear of approaching the perpetrator but because the police could handle that. No, they choose not to help someone they can see and hear is being hurt. Therein lies the mystery of the bystander effect.

It seems like the "Good Samaritan" archetype is long-gone in today's world. Daily, we are ransacked by news reports and social media stories describing people suffering while large crowds only watch.

Years ago, researchers set out to understand what would later be called the bystander effect. Interest started in 1964 after Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered in Queens, New York. There were multiple witnesses, who both heard and saw the crime, but no one intervened or called the police. Scientists wanted to know what had happened and why no one tried to help.

This strange case of group psychology was subsequently studied and researched for years on end and even became a well-known reference in books and movies.

Defining The Bystander Effect

Scientists defined the bystander effect as a phenomenon that occurs in groups of people where they all resist the notion of helping as individuals. The group allows the event to occur although they're aware of it. Researchers soon learned that the larger a crowd is, the more likely it is that no one will act when someone is hurt. These people are bystanders to the event.

The reasons behind the bystander effect have captivated psychologists for years. In Kitty Genovese's case, calling the bystander effect "apathy" would be inaccurate. Onlookers can be sympathetic and even desire to intervene and offer help. Due to many factors, they don't help. People who become bystanders as in this effect may even feel guilty for it later.

What Is The Bystander Effect And Its Origins?

There have always been general observations of mob mentality and what experts call "group mind," such as French psychologists Gabriel Tarde and Gustave Le Bon discussed. However, the Kitty Genovese case was so notorious it prompted an official laboratory-based study by John M. Darley and  Bibb Latané in 1968. According to their research, the presence of a large group of people inhibits individuals from taking decisive action.

Bibb Latané even staged a bystander effect experiment one year later. Upon seeing a woman in distress, 70 percent of passersby noticed and called out to the apparent victim. Only 40 percent took the time to help.

This behavior may be caused by hesitance or an unwillingness to go against the group. An example of this dynamic would be when no one calls 911 upon seeing an accident because they figure someone else will do it.

A less extreme example of the same dynamic is when children in a class will deliberately not ask the teacher additional questions, even if the teacher asks them if they have questions or if they know they may fail a test. They likely fear being perceived as different from others who aren't asking for help. Similarly, if everyone in a significant group witnesses a crime, and no one steps forward, the group starts to think it may not be an emergency.

Another powerful dynamic is what psychologists call diffusion of responsibility. Health Guidance mentions another test study in which a group of people was asked to wait in a room and observed smoke rising from underneath the door. Surprisingly, the more people in the room, the fewer individuals spoke up about the smoke. These studies shed light on another motivation: many people fail to speak up because they don't want to accept responsibility for taking a specific action.

More Bystander Effect Examples

This diffusion of responsibility may be linked to evolutionary development. Latané's studies mentioned that the degree of emergency is determined by each who goes through a variety of cognitive and behavioral processes, interpreting the scene, as well as the responsibility acting, would imply. Latané also said that these processes include such variables as whether the person deserves help, whether they can help themselves, and what obligation is owed to the bystander based on their relationship. Lack of connection may play a part.

The intimidation factor is somewhat obvious, as The Huffington Post points out in an article on bullying. People will back down from intervening if they sense that acting would put them in the path of the same danger they observe.

In the case of Genovese, these were all strangers. But the many witnesses betrayed their sense of conscience to avoid all consequences. Another theory that might explain inaction would be how well the observer understands the environment, including the streets, the exits, the sources of help, etc. If they are in an unfamiliar setting, just the same as the victim, it may be more difficult to help because of an instinct of self-preservation.

Perhaps the most observable motivator among people is "group cohesiveness." The more cohesive a group, the more likely people would react as a unit. Police officers are expected to intervene in most dangerous situations, not only because it's their job but because police officers work very much as a cohesive force.

Altruism, the act of playing the hero even if it's just temporarily, seems more likely to occur if the "hero" sees similar traits in the victim he's rescuing. This makes the victim seem "familiar," and the simulation of cohesiveness is attained.

This may well explain why many did not intervene in Genovese's case since, in large cities (where nighttime is perceived as dangerous and unwelcoming), people are often unacquainted with each other. Thus, sympathy may be absent or at least minimal. Bystander effect psychology does depend on familiarity among family, friends, and types (particularly religious, political, career or class-based), because the more objective individuals remain about this "foreign person," the less, it inclines them to act emotionally or take risks.

Social Media And The Bystander Effect

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Social media is another concern, especially with some well-documented crimes or acts of cruelty occurring while large crowds watched or even laughed. Are we losing our empathy? Is it possible that social media addiction may contribute to such antisocial behavior?

While no consistent studies have proven this, what has been proven is that social media addiction does increase the risk of social isolation. To combat feelings of low self-worth and a lack of empathy that can lead to the bystander effect online, it's essential to differentiate the physical world we inhabit from the online simulations.

Seeking Support As A Bystander

The idea that the world feels more unfriendly or that people have lost empathy can overwhelm or cause sadness. These emotions or being involved in a bystander situation can create guilt and sadness. If you're having trouble feeling empathy or experiencing depression, reaching out to a therapist can help. Online therapists are available anywhere you are from your favorite device.

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