06 June 2008

The Bystander Effect Is Alive And Well In Hartford, CT

The bystander effect (also known as bystander apathy, Genovese syndrome, diffused responsibility or bystander intervention) is a psychological phenomenon in which someone is less likely to intervene in an emergency situation when other people are present and able to help than when he or she is alone.

Solitary individuals will typically intervene if another person is in need of help: this is known as bystander intervention. However, researchers were surprised to find that help is less likely to be given if more people are present. In some situations, a large group of bystanders may fail to help a person who obviously needs help.


A 1968 study by John Darley and Bibb Latane first demonstrated the bystander effect in the laboratory. They ran some simple studies such as the following: A participant is placed alone in a room and is told he can communicate with other participants through an intercom. In reality, he is just listening to an audio recording and is told his microphone will be off until it is his turn to speak. During the recording, one participant suddenly pretends he is having a seizure. The study found that how long the participant waits before alerting the experimenter varies directly with the perceived number of other participants. In some cases, the participant never told the experimenter.

A common explanation of this phenomenon is that, with others present, observers all assume that someone else is going to intervene and so they each individually refrain from doing so and feel less responsible. This is an example of how diffusion of responsibility leads to social loafing. People may also assume that other bystanders may be more qualified to help, such as being a doctor or police officer, and their intervention would thus be unneeded.

People may also fear losing face in front of the other bystanders, being superseded by a superior helper, offering unwanted assistance, or the legal consequences of offering inferior and possibly dangerous assistance. Another explanation is that bystanders monitor the reactions of other people in an emergency situation to see if others think that it is necessary to intervene. Since others are doing exactly the same, everyone concludes from the inaction of others that other people do not think that help is needed. This is an example of pluralistic ignorance and social proof. An alternative to explanations of rational motivation is that emotional cues to action can be as powerful as irrational ones, and the presence of a group of inactive others is a pre-rational emotional cue to inaction that must be overcome.

To counter the bystander effect when you are the victim, a studied recommendation is to pick a specific person in the crowd to appeal to for help rather than appealing to the larger group generally.[citation needed] If you are the only person reacting to an emergency, point directly to a specific bystander and give them a specific task such as, "You. Call the police." These steps place all responsibility on a specific person instead of allowing it to diffuse. Furthermore, pluralistic ignorance is countered by the implication that all bystanders are indeed interested in helping, and social proof kicks in when one or more of the crowd steps in to assist.

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