Picture this: You’re walking down the street when you hear someone call for help. They’re being assaulted. What do you do? Most of us would like to think that we’d intervene — or at the very least, call 911. But the truth is, this isn’t what always happens.
On October 17, 2021, a woman was sexually assaulted on a train near Philadelphia, in full view of several passengers. Yet not a single one of them helped her or called the authorities, even though it was very obvious what was happening.
Onlookers time and again have withheld help to someone in need. Psychologists call this the bystander effect.
In short, the bystander effect is the name given to the phenomenon where people in a group fail to offer help to someone during an emergency, even though they are witnesses to the event.
In fact, research from 2014 suggests that the bigger the group, the less likely it is that anyone will come to help.
What started the research
In 1964, a woman named Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was attacked and repeatedly stabbed by a serial killer named Winston Moseley, despite calling out for help in her apartment courtyard. As many as 38 people were said to have witnessed her being murdered.
The press coverage at the time alleged that none of these witnesses came to her aid. These sensationalized early accounts have since been disproven — but nevertheless, the case jump-started psychological research into the bystander effect.
This includes some groundbreaking research by John Darley and Bibb Latané.
How psychology explains the bystander effect
In a series of experiments, Darley and Latané found that people tend to feel a moral responsibility to help someone in distress if they believe they are the only witnesses. But if they’re surrounded by others, they’re significantly less likely to feel like they have to intervene.
In fact, in 1969, Latané found that while 70% of people would help a woman in distress if they were the only bystander, only 40% would come to her aid if other people were present.
More recently, studies have found that people are less likely to speak up if they witness cyberbullying that takes place in larger online group forums, according to a 2015 review.
Examples of the bystander effect
- ignoring bullying or cyberbullying
- filming an assault instead of calling 911
- assuming someone else will help
- walking past a person lying on the street (Content warning: graphic)
- apathy toward climate change
Researchers think that there are two group dynamics at work in the bystander effect, which is why we’re less likely to act when we’re surrounded by others.
Diffusion of responsibility
In a group, we can feel less individual responsibility to help others. This has been observed in children as young as 5 and adults alike, per 2015 research and 2017 research respectively.
It happens for a simple reason: When we’re in a group, it’s easier to assume that someone else will step up and do something, so we don’t do anything ourselves. This leads to the bystander effect. The problem is, when everyone assumes that someone else will act, no one actually does.
When we’re in a group, we can look to others to decide what is appropriate behavior and what’s not.
So if there is a crisis — and it’s not clear what we should do because of the confusion — we often look at what everyone else is doing to get social cues.
If we don’t see anyone doing anything, we might assume there’s a reason for the inaction and draw a false conclusion that no action is needed, according to older research by Latané and Darley.
For example, if two people are arguing but no one else seems to care, we might figure it’s just a quarrel and keep walking — even if that argument turns physical.
Why? Well first of all, if the situation is dangerous to you and the victim, you’re more likely to pay attention to what’s going on. And second, in a dangerous situation, being in a group might help you feel more empowered and like you can actually help, per
For example, if you see someone attacking another person with a knife and you’re alone, you might be tempted to run away rather than help. But if you’re with a group, you might be more confident that you — and the group as a whole — can stop the knife-wielder if you work together.
Here are some theories on how to wake from the bystander effect:
Know what to do
If you’re an onlooker, you’re more likely to feel empowered to intervene if you know strategies to do so safely. Depending on the situation you encounter, you can choose to:
- intervene directly
- distract the attacker, if there is one
- delegate (bring in others to help)
- delay (offer follow-up resources and emotional support to the affected)
You can also take steps to be more prepared for emergencies, like taking first aid classes or getting CPR training.
Use the bystander effect positively
Some psychologists believe that simply being aware of the bystander effect could make us all more likely to react.
After all — if we know it can happen, we might be more determined to make sure we aren’t the ones that stood by and let something horrible occur.
Call out to a specific person
According to a 2018 research review, studies have found that people are more likely to help people they already know. This is why people are less likely to come to the aid of a stranger.
So, psychologist and professor Ken Brown said in a 2015 TEDx talk, if you’re in a crisis and you need help from others, try to focus on getting just one person to help. You’re more likely to get help, 2015 research says, if you’re direct and personal.
For example, you can call out to a specific bystander in the crowd, identifying them by the color of their shirt or hair, and ask them to call 911.
In fact, Brown recently commented to Psych Central about his 2015 TED Talks, noting the power of “asking for help in ways that reduce uncertainty.” You might’ve noticed that the audience member whom he called out of the crowd to ask for help stayed and assisted him for an unusually long period of time.
Brown reflects, “She continued to help me, despite the discomfort of standing, because I had made a direct request of her and once she started, it was clear that I wanted her to keep doing it,” until he eventually thanked her in front of the audience (but after the recording stops).
The bystander effect happens more than we’d like, but there are some things we can all do to overcome it and help others — and it all starts with knowing that this phenomenon even exists.