The Bystander Effect

Did you know about the Bystander Effect? Below is a nice definition that I found on Wikipedia (where else):

The bystander effect or Genovese syndrome is a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases where individuals do not offer any means of help in an emergency situation to the victim when other people are present. The probability of help has in the past been thought to be inversely related to the number of bystanders; in other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help. The mere presence of other bystanders greatly decreases intervention. This happens because as the number of bystanders increases, any given bystander is less likely to notice the incident, less likely to interpret the incident as a problem, and less likely to assume responsibility for taking action.

Research shows (I found the references in a Psychology book titled “Introduction to Psychology” by Atkinson & Hilgard) that the more people witnessing an event, the less likely they are to help. This happens for two reasons:

Pluralistic Ignorance

Diffusion of Responsibility

It has happened to me too, meaning that I felt my responsibility being diffused when among many people.

Usually it is because we see that other people are not taking any action, and therefore we may assume that

a) It is not an emergency

b) We may have misunderstood the situation and don’t want to look like idiots

c) We assume that someone else will step up and help

d) Or that someone has already taken some action already.

Murder of James Bulger

Little James

In studies where people thought to have been alone, the percentage was much higher than when they thought they were in a group.

Now isn’t that horrible if you think of it?

I just read about poor little James Bulger in 1993 London, who was only 2 years old and kidnapped by two 10 year-old boys. They took him on a “walk”, tortured him and hit him on the way, and even though his face had cuts, bruises and he was crying nobody saved him. Some though did ask what happened; the boys simply said that they were taking care of their little brother and taking him to safety. And even if he was their brother? Shouldn’t anyway he receive help? Who says that family is always good and protective and trustworthy? Those two evil, evil boys smashed a 10 kg iron bar into the little boy’s head, and stuck him to railroad tracks in order for him to die and appear as an accident. The boys got only 8 years in prison for what they did. I hope they had a terrible time in prison for what they did. 😦

Apart from wondering what kind of hellish world we live in, that two TEN year-old boys would so brutally attack and kill a 2 year-old child, what about the 38 people that saw the three go by and didn’t do anything??

Even though we may think that more people means more chances of someone helping, this is not always the case. This does not mean that if there is a crowd that nobody will help; It means that if individual A is watching the situation, they may be less likely to help if more people are around. But of course some people are wonderful and the chances are not lowered. I only hope that if we need help one day in any situation, that someone will be there to help us.

Keep this actual and real phenomenon in mind next time you witness something happening. And share the information with your friends and family so we can be aware and fight this nasty social phenomenon.

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One thought on “The Bystander Effect

  1. The Blade of Light says:

    Well, next time you thing that you are safe in someplace were there are many people around, think again. 😛

    It is actually true, though. Places with many people are safer only in terms of a psychological satisfaction, but not in any actual terms.

    A large number of people means that someone else might see to the matter at hand, ergo you ignore it and you are sooooo busy today so you walk past it … you want no trouble, and why did people have to start making such a fuss this particular day when you have so many things on your mind …

    …. and so you walk past …

    In other cases people might run for help, but panic and in the end do nothing constructive … last week I happened to pass by an accident that had happened minutes ago.

    Fifty people were over a poor fellow lying on the street and glasses were all over the place. The police came and so did the ambulance and at that point we left from a totally different way because of all the glasses. The bystanders stayed though since most were people living in that street.

    When I passed by that same spot 8 hours later, the street (a very popular one at that !) was STILL filled with glasses and was dangerous for the other drivers.

    Fifty people and the police couldn’t round up a broom and shove those glasses out of the way … I’d like to see some psychologists explain that 😛

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