Could the bystander effect be partially to blame for the lack of anyone intervening in the rape and sexual assault of Rehtaeh Parsons and Audrie Pott while it occurred?
The bystander effect is a psychological phenomenon whereas the more people that are present when a person is in distress, the less likely anyone intervenes to help that person. Both cases involved a young girl being sexually assaulted and raped while at a house party with other teenagers.
Add alcohol to the mix — and the emotionally-based (often poor) judgment associated with the teenage years — and yes, it appears to be the perfect recipe for disaster.
The bystander effect first became popularized in the media in the case of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese. On March 13, 1964, New York City resident 28-year-old Genovese was returning to her home in Queens from work that day. As she approached her apartment entrance in the Kew Gardens neighborhood, she was attacked and stabbed by a man.
About a dozen people in the apartment building had heard the attack (as they later told police) and also heard Genovese’s calls for help. But rather than responding immediately — either by actively helping the victim directly, or by calling the police — nobody did so. It took about a half hour before someone finally picked up the phone and called the police. By the time the police arrived, Genovese was dead.
Dozens of more modern psychology experiments have been conducted to confirm the existence of the bystander effect since then. Modern research finds that, in general, the bystander effect disappears when the situation is perceived as being a dangerous emergency (because others are seen more as potential helpers, not as people who will socially judge or otherwise intervene instead).
But some things make the bystander effect even stronger — making people less likely to intervene when another is in distress — according to researchers Fischer et al. (2011):
- More people present (it’s a linear, direct relationship)
- If most of the people are strangers to one another (as opposed to friends)
- More females present (males appear to be less affected)
We don’t know the makeup of the parties that these two young girls participated in, but if it’s like most teenage parties, it’s safe to guess there was a mix of friends and strangers who didn’t know one another.
While we don’t know if the sexual assaults took place in a bedroom — largely shielded from most party-goers’ view — we do know that in Audrie Pott’s case, one of the photos taken of the assault apparently made the rounds at the party itself. And still nobody apparently did anything to stop it or to help Audrie.
We hope a clear response to these incidents is justice — significant jail time for everyone who participated in the sexual assault and rape. And despite these teens being “just children” (in Audrie Pott’s case, the perpetrators were 16 year olds), their names should also be released to the public.
There is no better justice than ensuring that the public never forgets the identify of these criminals, and what they did to helpless girls — both of whom ended up taking their own lives.
And listen up if you’re a teen — do not let this happen again. If you see something that you know is wrong — stop it. Get others to help you stop it. Call the police if you need to. Do not be a victim of the bystander effect — take charge, take action, and let’s prevent these horrible incidents from ever occurring again in the future.
Fischer, Peter Krueger, Joachim I. Greitemeyer, Tobias Vogrincic, Claudia Kastenmüller, Andreas Frey, Dieter Heene, Moritz Wicher, Magdalena Kainbacher, Martina. (2011). The bystander-effect: A meta-analytic review on bystander intervention in dangerous and non-dangerous emergencies. Psychological Bulletin, 137, 517-537.