Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Bystander Effect

On the morning of March the 13th, 1964, a gross lack of concern led to the death of a woman named Katherine Genovese. On the street outside of her apartment building, she was stabbed multiple times by a man with a knife, in broad daylight. Despite her cries for help, no one came to her rescue. The most disgusting aspect of this was the fact that 38 onlookers were there who could have possibly saved her.
Despite the availability of help, her cries for help, and severity of her need for help, not one person so much as called the police. What would make people so indifferent to plight of this innocent woman? Why was no action made to help her?
This event shocked many people after and made many question the nature of the 38 onlookers’ actions. There were a variety of factors that led to this sad event, and one of them was later identified as the ‘Bystander Effect’.
The Bystander Effect, which was first researched by John Darley and Bibb Latane, suggests that a person is less likely to give help in an emergency situation as a result of the presence of other bystanders. There is an explanation for the Bystander effect, that is the ‘Diffusion of Responsibility’ The ‘Diffusion of Responsibility’ says that a person thinks one of the other bystanders will assume responsibility for taking action, thus negating their own obligation to do so. In the case of Katherine Genovese, the tendency towards Diffusion of Responsibly allowed for no action to be taken.
What ever way you slice it, Katherine Genovese is still dead, and the Bystander effect still occurs.
My question is this; because the Bystander effect is psychological, could we teach ourselves to be more conscientious of it, and if a similar situation occurs could we ignore this effect and act appropriately?
Surely not all of us will find ourselves in the same situation as that of the 38 observers of Ms. Genovese’ death. But there might be situations in which we might find ourselves where some other victim would benefit from our not being duped into the Bystander Effect. If you find yourself in a position like this, perhaps we will all be just a little bit wiser to the situation.


Gigi said...

Can you think of any examples in your own life that you have witnessed the bystander effect?

Aaron Grimm said...

The comments are almost as intersting as the posts...

Human nature is amazing. I think that it is hard to imagine watching some die before your eyes. I have been in a critical life saving situation before, and it is something that I still think about. I guess I would rather jump in and help than feel the regret later.

A typical high school culture is a whole different ball game. People that bully I think account of the "bystander effect." They are wise that no one will stick up to them.

I digress, another interesting read. Keep them coming.

Elvish said...

"My question is this; because the Bystander effect is psychological, could we teach ourselves to be more conscientious of it, and if a similar situation occurs could we ignore this effect and act appropriately?"

I suspect that we -- as humans -- are fully capable of compensating psychological phenomenon (if you will) such as this. I don't think that we can fully overcome it however.

For an example I think supports my position, let's examine the "Forer effect", also known as the personal validation fallacy. The Forer effect, according to (Skeptics Dictionary), is this: "The Forer effect refers to the tendency of people to rate sets of statements as highly accurate for them personally even though the statements could apply to many people." (A full explanation of the Forer effect can be found here.)

It's my belief that we can compensate for the Forer effect -- we can realize that statements like those found in Zodiac Readings are so vague that they can apply to anyone and we can, therefore, refuse to believe in them. But at that point we're just adjusting, and I think that at that point we will have a tendency to adjust for all readings about ourselves -- accurate, vague, or otherwise.

As a result, I don't consider such a defensive mechanism to be overcoming the Forer effect, just compensating for it. The same, I feel, is true for the Bystander Effect -- we can assume the responsibility we believe to be diffused, but I think that then we will be paranoid of the Bystander Effect in many areas of our lives where it wouldn't apply.

Elvish said...

Compensating for, I meant to say. Sorry to clog your blog!

Jeremy said...

I recently cam across the article "We Are All Bystanders" by Jason Marsh and Professor Keltner of UC Berkeley. The article explains why we sometimes shackle our moral instincts and how we can set them free. This article gives a solution to the dilemma of the bystander effect, so I think it is worth taking a look at.

Additionally, here is a link to an interview with Philip Gourevitch about why nations intervene - and why they don't. This relates to the bystander effect on a global level and is also worth checking out.