Bystander effect: why do we often walk by when someone needs help?

Imagine this situation: you are walking along a busy street when a man near you gets ill. Will you help him or will you decide that there are enough other people around to provide help? Alas, the latter option is more likely to happen. And not because you are a "bad person", but because the bystander effect is at play.

How does it work?

The bystander effect is a psychological phenomenon, the essence of which states that the greater the number of people who have witnessed an emergency accident (car crash, crime, or other), the less likely one of them is to help the victim. And vice versa: the fewer witnesses around, the more likely that someone will help. This can be explained by the diffusion of responsibility - the phenomenon when responsibility for an act is distributed among all members of the group. As a result, the level of responsibility of each individual becomes significantly lower than if they were alone.



Historical example

This effect was first described by two American social psychologists, John Darley and Bibb Latane, in 1968. Their research was inspired by an incident that happened in New York four years earlier.

On the evening of March 13, 1964,  Kitty Genovese - a resident of the Queens area - was assaulted and died as a result. The police found that at least a dozen people witnessed certain episodes of the attack, although they didn't realize how serious the event was. Most of them were convinced that the screams were a common quarrel between spouses or the ramblings of drunkards.



More people - less help

Interested in this case, John Darley and Bibb Latane conducted a series of experiments to study in more detail the behavior of people who witnessed someone in trouble.

For the experiment, students were invited to special meetings to discuss their problems and experiences. At each meeting, there was an actor who began speaking and after a few minutes, pretended to have a seizure. The experimental groups differed in the number of participants: the actor could be one-on-one with a single participant, or there could be three or six people in the group.

Scientists noticed that in cases where the "experimental" participant was the only witness to the "seizure", assistance was provided to the victim in 85% of cases. If there were two witnesses, 62% of cases provided help, and if there were five - only 31% of the cases offered assistance. Also, the number of witnesses influenced how quickly help was provided: the fewer people, the faster they helped.

And so it turns out: everyone thinks that someone else will help, while the victim is left alone with their trouble. Therefore, when a person needs help, don't expect someone else to provide it - even if there are plenty of other people around.

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