Numerous studies demonstrate that when someone is in trouble or
in need of help, as the number of bystanders increases, the number
of people who actually help decreases. Termed “Bystander Apathy,”
this effect occurs because, in almost any situation, the more people
that are present, the more we feel a diffusion of responsibility.
Our sense of social pressure is lessened when we feel that there
might be any number of people more capable of helping than we are.
Have you ever
been in a situation where, because of the numbers in your group,
you didn’t really give it your all? For example, maybe on
an academic group project you noticed you weren’t as diligent
as you would have been had you been solely responsible for the assignment.
Or, maybe you’ve helped push a stalled car to safety with
some other people and you realized you didn’t really push
your hardest. When we find ourselves in groups, there is a diffusion
of responsibility. Sometimes we don’t know if we should even
involve ourselves in the first place, since there are so many other
people who could take action. Have you ever seen someone pulled
over on the side of the road, but you just kept driving along with
all the other cars speeding by? When there are large numbers of
people involved, we tend to assume someone else will respond and
take action first, or we might conclude that our help is not needed.
case in history stands out as a classic example of Bystander Apathy.
Catherine Genovese, a young woman living in New York City, was murdered
one night when she was coming home from work. The unfortunate truth
of the matter was that, in a city like New York, her death was just
another of countless murders, and so it didn’t receive more
than just a few lines mention in The New York Times. Genovese’s
story would have remained an obscure and incidental case had it
not been for one small incident.
A week later,
A.M. Rosenthal, editor of The New York Times, went out to
lunch with the city police commissioner. Rosenthal asked the commissioner
about another homicide in the area, but the commissioner, mistakenly
thinking he was being asked about the Genovese case, revealed a
shocking piece of information that had been uncovered by the police.
Genovese’s death had not been a silent, hidden, or secretive
occurrence. Rather, it had been a loud, drawn-out, public event.
As her attacker chased her down and stabbed her three separate times
in a 35-minute period, 38 neighbors watched from their apartment
windows and didn’t even call the police!
assigned a team to investigate this incidence of “Bystander
Apathy.” Soon following, The New York Times came out
with a lengthy, front-page article detailing the incident and the
alleged reactions of the neighbors:
more than half an hour, 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in
Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate
attacks in Kew Gardens. Twice the sound of their voices and the
sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened
him off. Each time he returned, sought her out, and stabbed her
again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault;
one witness called after the woman was dead.”
completely stunned and baffled. How could people just stand by,
witness such a scene, and do absolutely nothing? Even the very neighbors
alluded to in the article didn’t know how to explain their
inaction. Responses included, “I don’t know,”
“I was afraid,” and “I didn’t want to get
involved.” These “explanations” didn’t really
answer anything. Why couldn’t one of them have just made a
quick, anonymous call to the police?
of the media — newspapers, TV stations, magazines, radio stations,
etc. — pursued their own studies and investigations to explain
the incredible scenario all of them finally arriving at the same
conclusion: the witnesses simply didn’t care. They concluded
that there was just no other explanation, or so they thought. Do
you really think 38 people did not care enough to make an anonymous
phone call? Did the researchers not understand the diffusion of
responsibility? The neighbors did not react, thinking someone else
would help or someone else would call the police. Most of us are
good people. If each individual neighbor knew it was up to them
to phone the police and get help, I guarantee they would have made
conducted in New York highlighted this tendency for “Bystander
Apathy.” It determined that when a lone individual observed
smoke leaking from under a door, 75% of those studied reported the
smoke. In groups of three, however, reporting incidences dropped
to 38%. If, in that group, two people encouraged the third person
to do nothing, reporting of the smoke dropped to 10%.
Often, the problem
is that we don’t know if we are really witnessing an emergency
or not. For example, if we see a guy collapsed on the floor, we
might waver between two conclusions: Did he just have a heart attack
or did he pass out because he’d been drinking too much? So,
bystanders may appear to be “apathetic” more because
of uncertainty than insensitivity. And, if they are uncertain, they
often don’t help because they don’t know if they’re
responsible to do so. Everybody else observing the event is likely
to be looking for social evidence too. Because most people prefer
to appear poised and levelheaded when in the presence of others,
they are likely to search for that evidence with brief glances at
those around them. Therefore, everyone sees everyone else looking
unflustered and failing to act. When people clearly know their responsibilities
in a recognized and obvious emergency, however, they are remarkably
quick to respond.