Achilles Healing Hypnotherapy

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The Bystander Effect


2) Discuss how the bystander effect has given psychologists insight into the power of a social situation.


Tragically, one of the best-known cases of the bystander effect is that of Kitty Genovese.  The majority of her murder was witnessed by thirty eight ‘horrified’ (Aronson 1995 47) neighbours who failed to assist her.  Excuses for this lack of involvement have been sought by social psychologists, and many examples of the phenomenon have been studied.  Weber (1992), mentions factors which are involved in us deciding whether or not to help in a situation, such as: “diffusion of responsibility, ambiguity and cost-benefit analysis” (Weber 1992 286).

Darley and Latane’s theory follows the idea that we each have a “Decision Tree” which results in action or inaction.  Their idea is as follows:

  • Is the event noticed?
  • Is the event interpreted as an emergency?
  • Does the bystander feel responsible for intervening?
  • Does the bystander know how to intervene?
  • Does the bystander take action?

Individual’s may take time to review each of these and, Darley and Latane say, they may still be deciding rather than having made a final decision to do nothing (Weber 1992 286).

This essay will review all these ideas in order to determine what insights the bystander effect has on the power of a social situation.

Darley & Latane (1968) speculated that it was important how many people witnessed the event.  The more people there are the less chance of receiving help because we take cues from others.  Non-intervention, if there is consensus, may be due to conformity (Aronson 1995 47).  Discussion, or simply expressions and behaviour may determine action or inaction (Latane & Darley 1975 273). However, if someone offers help, this is seen as setting an example to others and more people are likely to follow suit (Weber 1992 285).

Latane and Rodin (1969) showed that 70% of people helped when they were alone, (40% of the time when they were with a friend; 20% if they were with a stranger; and less than 10% if the stranger was non-responsive).  They note that if there is only one individual witnessing events, they will most likely feel responsible for dealing with the situation.  In an emergency situation, especially, any help must be given.  To deny help causes the person to feel guilt, especially if there is a chance of blame (Latane & Darley 1975 278).

Latane and Rodin (1969) set up an experiment called Lady in Distress, where college students heard what sounded like a lady falling off a chair and being injured.  It seems clear that, in this case, the presence of another bystander did have an effect on the outcome of the experiment.  70% of those who were alone came to the woman’s aid; but only 20% of those who were in pairs offered any assistance.  This has caused some to conclude that the neighbours of Genovese transferred responsibility onto others, if they saw others watching (Aronson 1995 48; Latane & Darley 1975 276-277).

Furthermore, rather than being the callous people we imagine bystanders to be, some test subjects in one experiment experienced physical symptoms of anxiety such as shaking and sweating.  This has been taken to show that they are actually in a state of emotional conflict and indecision: on the one hand, feeling guilty and ashamed; on the other, concerned not to overreact, spoil the experiment or interfere with the anonymity of it (Latane & Darley 1975 280).

Aronson gives his own anecdote of many people offering help to a fellow camper.  He concludes that there was a significant situational difference in that all the campers were in similar surroundings and subject to a feeling of “common fate” (Aronson 1995 50) and, therefore, unable to escape responsibility.   Genovese’s neighbours, on the other hand, were able to do just that.  Aronson concludes, the case of the campers was not a controlled experiment and does not take into account how different individuals may act.

Nevertheless, an experiment conducted on a New York train does support Aronson’s point of view.  A large amount of people helped a man who stumbled and fell on the train, even when he was made to appear to be drunk.  However, there were some significant differences in this experiment.  Men tended to help more than women and, when the man appeared to be drunk, was more likely to be helped by someone of the same race.  When the victim was an invalid, he was also more likely to be helped, but was helped more slowly if he was bleeding (Piliavin and Piliavin 1972).

Aronson points out that this has 2 similarities to the events at the campground:

  • A feeling of common fate (everyone is riding on the same subway)
  • Face-to-face encounter, with no escape

Suedfeld (1971) conducted an experiment where someone pretended to be unwell at a protest rally in Washington.  The person either held a sign saying “Dump Nixon” or “Support Nixon”.  More people were willing to help a fellow-protester with the “Dump Nixon” sign.  Again, this is evidence for the idea of those who share a common fate or intention (Aronson 1995 54).

Darley and Latane (1970) predicted that a person’s willingness to help is dependent on the risk they take in doing so.  These risks include “physical injury, monetary loss or sacrifice, loss of time, embarrassment, and so on” (Eiser 1986 259).

As with the train experiment above, people are less likely to help if they think their own life might be in jeopardy.  For example, there are risks attached to contact with blood (Aronson 1995 52).  The element of physical danger is a big deterrent to bystanders and this may have influenced Genovese’s neighbours.

Another experiment was conducted by Darley & Batson (Aronson 1995 52; Weber 1992 285).  Divinity students were either told they were late, on time, or early for giving a talk – about The Good Samaritan – in another building.  On their way to the other building, students passed someone slumped in a doorway, eyes closed and coughing.  10% of students who were late offered help, whilst over 50% of those on time, or early, stopped to offer assistance.  It would seem people only help if it is convenient to do so, even those of a spiritual disposition.

In the case of risk of embarrassment, everyone present is also witnessing each other’s individual reaction.  In some societies, it is socially unacceptable to overly express emotion.  Inaction, and an appearance of calmness, may be partly due to a desire to avoid being mocked or scorned.  Therefore, if everyone in the group has a calm demeanor, everyone is less likely to act (Latane & Darley 1975 273).

Bickman’s experiment showed that witnesses’ perception of the situation as an emergency has quite a significant effect on the outcome (Aronson 1995 52).   Baron (1970) showed that it was important if a bystander thought their intervention could alleviate or stop the physical suffering of someone.  The greater the pain and the likelihood of being able to stop it, the more likely a bystander would step in to help.  Yet, if a bystander did not believe they could alleviate pain they were more reluctant to help, especially if the pain being suffered was intense.  Therefore, if we believe there is nothing we can do, we are more likely to leave what we see as being an unpleasant situation, especially if the person is suffering a great level of pain (Aronson 1995 53).

Our occupations may play a part in determining whether or not we are likely to assist.  For example, a nurse or doctor will be more likely to assist if someone needs medical attention because they feel competent to do so; whereas, unresponsive bystanders are more likely to feel incompetent of their abilities to help (Brehm and Kassin 1996 274-5).

In conclusion, it can be ascertained from the studies shown that there are many factors involved in causing the bystander effect.  Consensus and the amount of people present are important.   There is the desire to do the right thing, not only according to ourselves, but according to the group.  We ask ourselves questions to decide whether we are competent to give help; whether someone else is more competent than us, and therefore should be responsible; and whether any help is actually needed or if it would be an overreaction to give assistance.

We can tell that far from being cold-hearted, bystanders have high levels of conflict, indecision and ultimately guilt, should their inaction lead to undesirable consequences and suffering.  It is possible to determine that if we know the person, if we live in a similar environment or if there is no way to avoid helping, we will be much more likely to assist.  It is also more likely that someone in distress will receive help if there is no likelihood of risk to the helper.

The evidence suggests that we put ourselves first, as in the case of the experiment conducted by Darley and Batson (“The Good Samaritan”).  However, perhaps when we are distracted and stressed it takes longer to process our “decision tree” and reach a conclusion in time.  Our snap decision, therefore, might be that it is not an emergency and we can dismiss it without guilt or remorse.  Or perhaps the Samaritan experiment had a much simpler message: that when we are distracted and stressed we are less capable of making a quick decision, looking to the group to decide on the appropriate action.  If no one else is doing anything, that must be the right decision.  Darley and Batson’s experiment is complex in itself.  There may be even more going on under the surface than appears, but there are certainly many lessons to be learned from it.




Argyle, M, Furnham, A, Graham, J A. Social Situations Cambridge University Press: Cambridge 47.

Aronson, E (1995) The Social Animal W H Freeman & Co: New York 47-54.

In Aronson (1995):

Baron, R A (1970)  Magnitude of model’s apparent pain and ability to aid the model as determinants of observer reaction time.  Psychonomic Science, 21, 196-197.

Darley, J & Batson, D (1973) “From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behaviour.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27, 100-108.

Darley, J & Latane, B (1968) Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 377-383.  Latane, B & Darley, J (1968).  Group inhibition of bystander intervention in emergencies.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 10, 215-221.  Latane, B & Rodin, J (1969).  A lady in distress: Inhibiting effects of friends and strangers on bystander intervention.   Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 5, 189-202.

Suedfeld, P, Bochner, S & Wnek, D (1972) Helper-sufferer similarity and a specific request for help: Bystander intervention during a peace demonstration.  Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2, 17-23.

Brehm, S S & Kassin, S M (1996) Social Psychology (3rd ed) Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston Chapter 7 274-275.

Eiser, R J Social Psychology: Attitudes, cognition and social behaviour Cambridge University Press: London 259.

In Eiser:

Piliavin, J A & Piliavin, I M (1972) Effect of blood on reactions to a victim.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 23, 353-361.

Latane, B & Darley, J M (1975) Social determinants of bystander intervention in emergencies in Readings and Conversations in Social Psychology: Psychology is Social (ed Krupat, E) Scott, Foresman and Company: Illinois 272-281.

Weber, A (1992) Social Psychology HarperCollins: NY Chapter 17, 287.

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