Bystander effect

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The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to offer help in an emergency situation when other people are present. The probability of help is inversely proportional 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.[1]


[edit] Case of Kitty Genovese

The case of Kitty Genovese is the most famous example of the bystander effect. It is also the case that originally stimulated social psychological research in this area. Ms. Genovese was stabbed to death in 1964 by a serial rapist and murderer. According to newspaper accounts, the killing took place for at least a half an hour. The murderer attacked Ms. Genovese and stabbed her, but then fled the scene after attracting the attention of a neighbor. The killer then returned ten minutes later and finished the assault. Newspaper reports after Genovese's death claimed that 38 witnesses watched the stabbings and failed to intervene or even contact the police. This led to widespread public attention and editorials that the United States had become a cold, uncaring society.

According to an article published in American Psychologist in 2007, the original story of Kitty Genovese's murder was exaggerated by the media. Specifically, there were not 38 eyewitnesses, the police were contacted at least once during the attack, and many of the bystanders that overheard the attack could not actually see the event. The authors of the article suggest that the story continues to be misrepresented in social psychology textbooks because it functions as a parable and serves as a dramatic example for students.[2]

[edit] Social psychology research

The bystander effect was first demonstrated in the laboratory by John Darley and Bibb Latane in 1968.[3] These researchers launched a series of experiments that resulted in one of the strongest and most replicable effects in social psychology. In a typical experiment, the participant is either alone or among a group of other participants or confederates. An emergency situation is then staged — examples include smoke pouring from a vent in the room, a woman falling and becoming injured, a student having an epileptic seizure, etc. The researchers then measure how long it takes the participants to act, and whether or not they intervene at all. These experiments virtually always find that the presence of others inhibits helping, often by a large margin.

There are many reasons why bystanders in groups fail to act in emergency situations, but social psychologists have focused most of their attention on two major factors. According to a basic principle of social influence, bystanders monitor the reactions of other people in an emergency situation to see if others think that it is necessary to intervene. Since everyone is doing exactly the same thing (nothing), they all conclude from the inaction of others that help is not needed. This is an example of pluralistic ignorance or social proof. The other major obstacle to intervention is known as diffusion of responsibility. This occurs when observers all assume that someone else is going to intervene and so each individual feels less responsible and refrains from doing anything.

There are other reasons why people may not help. They may assume that other bystanders are more qualified to help, such as doctors or police officers, and that their intervention would be unneeded. People may also experience evaluation apprehension and fear losing face in front of the other bystanders. They may also be afraid of being superseded by a superior helper, offering unwanted assistance, or facing the legal consequences of offering inferior and possibly dangerous assistance.

[edit] Organizational ombuds' research

A recent study by organizational ombuds suggests that there are dozens of reasons why people do not act on the spot or come forward in the workplace when they see behavior they consider unacceptable. (see Dealing with—or Reporting—“Unacceptable” Behavior - with additional thoughts about the “Bystander Effect” © 2009 Mary Rowe MIT, Linda Wilcox HMS, Howard Gadlin NIH).

- The most important reasons cited were the fear of loss of important relationships in and out of the workplace, and a fear of "bad consequences." There also were many reasons given by people who did act on the spot or come forward to authorities. This practitioners' study suggests that the so-called bystander effect is actually very complex, reflecting views of the context (and organization) and many personal reasons.

[edit] Implications

To counter the bystander effect when one is the victim, one recommendation is to pick a specific person in the crowd to ask for help rather than appealing to the larger group. For example, point directly to a specific bystander and give the person a specific task such as, "you in the red shirt, dial 911." This clarifies the situation and places the responsibility directly on a specific person instead of allowing it to diffuse.

In the United States, the fear of a liability lawsuit may increase the bystander effect. With lawsuits so prominent in U.S. society, a person who may have helped a victim may choose not to do so, under fear of making the situation worse and consequently being sued. In states with Good Samaritan law, this is not a problem, but bystanders might not know that.

Many institutions have worked to provide options for bystanders who see behavior they find unacceptable. These options are usually provided through complaint systems --- so bystanders have choices about where to go. One option that is particularly helpful is that of an organizational ombudsman, who keeps no records for the employer and is near-absolutely confidential.

Another step that has been taken by some organizations is bystander training. The Department of the Army is doing bystander training with respect to sexual assault. Some organizations routinely do bystander training with respect to safety issues. Many organizations have been doing bystander training with respect to diversity issues. (See Bystander Training within Organizations (PDF) The Journal of the International Ombudsman Association 2009, 2,(1))

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ Aronson, E., Akert, R. D., and Wilson, T. D. (2006). Social psychology (6th Ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
  2. ^ Manning, R., Levine, M., & Collins, A. (2007). The Kitty Genovese murder and the social psychology of helping: The parable of the 38 witnesses. American Psychologist, 62, 555-562.
  3. ^ Darley, J. M. & Latané, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 377-383.

[edit] External links

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