March 13, 1964 – Queens, New York. A young woman called Kitty Genovese was running from a man chasing her across the parking lot. She screamed for help as she ran from the attacker but not a single person came to her rescue. The attacker stabbed her repeatedly but the police were never alerted to the incident. The astonishing fact is that not only was there someone watching the whole attack – completely able to call the police or intervene – but there were no less than 38 bystanders.
This case sparked a question in social psychology: what prevented those 38 people from stopping a murder happening in front of them? Was it fear of attracting the assaulter’s attention? The bystanders were all watching from their apartment and calling the police would have been simple and discreet, so this was not the reason. Psychologists designed an experiment to study the natural human response as a bystander in an emergency situation.
The experiment was simple: have participants fill a survey in a room and have the helper leave the room. The helper would then stage a collapse with a yell. The participants’ response would then be observed (particularly their response time).
What they found was fascinating. When only one person was in the room, it was very likely he or she would check to see what happened. But with a group (even three would suffice), the response time would dramatically increase, if they responded at all. Simply put: the more bystanders there are, the less likely someone will step in to do something.
The reason is actually simpler than people think. It is not that people are naturally evil and wish to see others suffer; the bystander effect is a consequence of the basic human psyche.
Firstly, people constantly observe others’ responses in a social situation. This creates a paradox where everyone assumes that since no one is doing anything, they themselves do not act either.
Secondly, there is a shared sense of delusion where people think “others will do it”. This is known as “responsibility splitting” and explains why more people lead to less response.
These two factors combined with cognitive dissonance reduce the guilt and burden of the bystander as they consider it alright to not respond as long as no one else does (or if they do, good for them).
Unfortunately, this effect is so powerful that they occur in about 70% of assault cases and also other emergencies such as a person collapsing from a heart attack (i.e. no one rushes to perform CPR). The same effect is seen in cases of suicides (where the person publicly announces their intentions with no one responding) and classrooms (when the teacher asks the class a question).
This is why one of the greatest tips for emergency response is to pick a single person out and instruct them to do something. For example, “You there, in the red jacket, call the ambulance” is much more effective than “Somebody do something”.