Synopsis: It’s a psychological paradox that the greater the number of people present when a person needs help, the less likely help will be rendered. Experts discuss reasons why this effect occurs, how it can be broken by technology, and the background of intense research into the effect sparked by the first internationally famous “bystander effect” crime.

Host: Reed Pence. Guests: Kevin Cook, author, Kitty Genovese; the Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America; Dr. Jan-Willem van Prooijen, Assoc. Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology, V-U University, Amsterdam, Netherlands and Senior Researcher, Netherlands Institute for Criminology; Dr. James Strickland, psychologist in private practice, Comack, NY.

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The Bystander Effect

Reed Pence: Back in March of 1964, a 28-year old bar manager named Kitty Genovese closed up the bar for the night and headed home, walking the quiet streets of her Queens, New York, neighborhood. She never made it, becoming instead the victim of one of the most well known crimes of the 20th century.

Kevin Cook: She was coming home work in the middle of the night on the morning of March 13th a little after three in the morning, 1964, and was attacked out of the middle of the night, really the primal human nightmare, it seems to me – somebody springs out of the darkness and stabs her. The case became world famous when the New York Times reported two weeks later that 38 people had watched this crime take place and watched Kitty Genovese be killed and had done nothing.

Pence: That’s Kevin Cook, author of the book, Kitty Genovese: The Murder, The Bystanders, The Crime That Changed America. He says that Kitty was attacked twice over half an hour before help arrived. So the case quickly became emblematic of a nation turned cold-hearted and apathetic.

Cook: Kitty Genovese screamed for help. By the time they got to their windows – they are half asleep, it’s three-thirty in the morning, she has bravely staggered around the corner out of sight. The murderer, rather than fleeing, waited and attacked her again on the opposite side of the same building at a place where the people who had gone to their windows could no longer see her. So it took a half-hour overall before finally the police arrived and it’s all over.

Pence: However, Cook says the murder of Kitty Genovese didn’t happen quite the way the newspapers portrayed it. He says it’s likely that only about a half dozen people really could have heard Kitty’s screams and actually seen what was going on. And some of them did try to do something about it.

Cook: One man lifted his window and shouted, “Leave that girl alone.” That’s what stopped the first attack and the killer ran away. The story’s always been told that she died alone. She did not die alone. There was a neighbor who was brave enough to run to her side when for all the neighbor knew the crime was still going on.

Pence: Still, it’s true that some people did nothing. For example:

Cook: A married couple looked out their window and one of them reaches for the telephone, “I’m going to call the police,” and the other says, “Oh, no need. Thirty or forty people must have called the police by now.” In fact, the story went, no one had. I found that later, I firmly believe at least one person did call the police while the attack was under way.

Pence: Psychologists have since come to understand some of the reasons why people refuse to get involved in helping someone else, especially when lots of other people are around. Back in the 60’s, it was known as the Kitty Genovese effect. Today psychologists call it the bystander effect. And Cook says much of their research was prompted by this case.

Cook: It led to so much hand wringing about apathy. What’s the matter with our society? How can we stand by and watch without intervening ourselves, without trying to do something right? That’s why the case is still studied in psychology textbooks from high school through college. It did lead to a lot of really important research into the bystander effect. It’s a real effect Kitty and all of the rest of us would be luckier if someone attacks us if there are only two or three witnesses than if there are a whole bunch of witnesses. If there a dozen, everyone tends to wait- who‘s the bravest in this bunch? Somebody’s braver than me. Somebody’s stronger than I am. Someone else will take action. If there’s only two then the psychological approach seems to be, it’s going to be me or it’s going to be nobody.

Jan-Willem Van Prooijen: The bystander effect is the phenomenon that in emergency situations, situations where people need help, the amount of help that you can expect depends on the number of people watching and paradoxically the bystander effect means that the more people are watching, the less likely it is that someone intervenes, that someone comes to help the victim.

Pence: That’s Dr. Jan-Willem Van Prooijen, associate professor of social and organizational psychology at V-U University in Amsterdam and senior researcher at the Netherlands Institute for Criminology. He’s been a researcher in a number of recent studies showing factors that lead people to help out… or keep them away.

Van Prooijen: Throughout the years we have managed to develop various explanations for this phenomenon. One very important one, I think, is what we call the diffusion of responsibility. That means when other peoples are watching our sense of personal responsibility to do something decreases. So we start thinking, why should I intervene? Why not the person standing there or that guy over there seems much stronger. That’s one important explanation, our diffusion of responsibility, our own personal responsibility decreases.

Dr. James Strickland: When you’re on the highway and everybody’s driving, diffusion of responsibility says that bystanders don’t accept personal responsibility for helping because they assume somebody else will do it.

Pence: Dr. James Strickland is a psychologist in private practice in Commack, New York.

Strickland: My own personal experience with the bystander effect is when my daughter was two years old, and she had her birthday party, I was sitting with her at the table, and they brought the cake and it had candles and they surprised me with it. So I was like, wait, let me go ahead and get my video camera because I’ve got to document everything. I went to get the camera and in the interim, I had come back and my two-year old daughter at that time had reached out and grabbed the front flame and burned herself. And that’s when I said, how could this have happened? There was a room full of adults.     

Pence: Strickland says another reason bystanders don’t help out when others are around is a concept called “pluralistic ignorance.”

Strickland: Essentially bystanders conclude that it’s unnecessary to help because other people around them aren’t offering to help. They interpret it as, “Oh, I guess the person doesn’t need help.”

Van Prooijen: To give you an example, imagine someone is drowning in a pool or in a lake, and there are several people watching on the side and no one jumps in, then we might think, well the person isn’t drowning, the person is taking a swim.      

Pence: Van Prooijen says another factor is known as audience inhibition.

Van Prooijen: That means that when there are other bystanders around we fear that we might be evaluated negatively when we intervene, so when we feel more watched and therefore are more concerned that we might be doing something wrong by intervening.

Pence: Some other factors are perhaps more practical and less subconscious. Strickland says a lot of people don’t get involved because, as they say, no good deed goes unpunished. They’re worried about their personal safety. By the same token, a number of factors can make certain people more inclined to help. One is competence. For example, if someone’s having trouble related to a person’s area of expertise. Strickland says he once observed a woman clearly in emotional distress aboard a commuter train. No one was helping her. So he stepped forward, showed his psychologist identification, and was able to help calm the woman. He says another factor increasing bystander involvement is if the emergency is unambiguous.

Strickland: There’s a clear and present danger. So if it’s well known – it’s a fire, it’s happening, or perhaps it’s a really bad car accident, somebody will make a phone call to the police. Also, if somebody else has already intervened, these people are more likely to help once it gets started. I call that the penguin effect. I’ve observed this a number of times watching shows on TV where you see a bunch of penguins huddled up around a hole, and they’re all gathered around, and no one’s going, but then all of a sudden that one penguin, whether he be brave or stupid jumps into the hole, then you see all the other penguins going a head.     

Pence: Van Prooijen’s team has found that anonymity is also a major factor in whether bystanders get involved. They tested the theory by having research subjects use a specially designed Internet chat room. After awhile, the subjects started getting messages from other supposed users asking for help.

Van Prooijen: Varying problems like relationship breakups, health issues, and we assessed whether or not participants help in form of sending a message to them, sending an encouraging message or trying to give some advice. What we varied was two things. First of all we varied whether or not people were alone on the forum or they thought there were at the same time 30 other participants. So thirty other people on that specific web forum. Second, we also made them feel watched, for instance by having a web cam pointed at them.

Pence: Van Prooijen found that the bystander effect is just as strong on the Internet as it is in person until you turn on the camera.

Van Prooijen: If there was no webcam then we find a typical bystander effect. So people help less when there were more people present on the forum.  So basically, the bystander effect in cyberspace if you would like. But when people felt watched, for instance by web cam, when people felt self-conscious this increases self-awareness, and then we actually found the reversal of the bystander effect. People actually started helping more when they thought there were other bystanders present. We think that’s a really interesting phenomenon because that suggests that making people feel watched increases their concern for their reputation, and makes them actually realize that helping can have good benefits for their reputation.

Pence: Then the team tried out the power of the camera in person. They set up a help desk with some cash on it. After a research subject entered the room, the desk was briefly left alone by its attendant. Then an actor was instructed to snatch some of the money and turn to leave the room, to see if the subject intervened.

Van Prooijen: We varied whether or not participants were alone with the thief or whether there were two other people standing there. Now these two other people were actors and they were given clear instructions to stand there, watch and do nothing, beside that, we also varied whether or not there was a security camera hanging in the lab. For all the participants this camera was there and the other half there was no such camera. Now what did we find? We found that the presence of the camera increased the extent that people tried to stop the thief

Pence: In fact, the camera increased those efforts to the point that people were just as likely to intervene with others present as they were when they were alone with the thief. Van Prooijen was surprised how courageous subjects were.

Van Prooijen: If you’re alone with the thief and there’s no camera, it places pretty much all the responsibility on you. If you don’t do anything, then no one will, basically. In that condition people were about as eager to help in terms of stopping thief as when there was a camera and other bystanders present. What we think is that  the camera serves as an accountability cue. It reminds people that they can be held accountable for what they do or for what they fail to do in such a situation. I think it makes them more conscious that even when there are other people they do have a responsibility. Moreover, I also think it makes them more conscious of what they do has an implication for their reputation.  

Pence: And since everybody knows cameras could be just about anywhere these days, including in someone else’s pocket. Van Prooijen says it’s possible we may start to see a crack in the bystander effect. When we assume without thinking that we’re being watched, we may not feel they can slip into the background anymore. It may allow the hero in each of us to emerge. You can find out more about Kevin Cook’s book, Kitty Genovese, and information about all of our guests through our website,

I’m Reed Pence.


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