People of goodwill will always seek to help others when they are in distress or need. This is part of the golden rule for humanity. The bystander effect happens when individuals deliberately choose to avoid offering help. However, most people offer their help because they believe that they, too, will need help someday. This is how the bystander effect relates to altruism, as it directly opposes selflessness or philanthropy (Fischer et al., 2011).
Sometimes, people may encounter a situation in which they can act to prevent harm but choose to walk away and ignore the individual in need. The term “bystander effect” first appeared in the aftermath of Kitty Genovese murder in the 1960s (Chekroun & Brauer, 2002). Kitty had screamed for help in the hope that her assailants would fear and run away. Interestingly, residents in the neighboring apartments did not offer any help despite hearing Kitty Genovese’s loud screams. They acted as bystanders while an attacker maimed Kitty Genovese.
One expects that the human psyche would push people to act and try to prevent bad things from happening to others or approach those in need, during accidents or grievous assaults. When in such circumstances people remain apathetic, they are suffering from the bystander effect. The reasons behind the bystander effect include a desire to avoid involvement in other people’s issues, a misguided thought that somebody else would come to help, or to avoid the inconvenience that comes with helping. Sometimes people choose to ignore the situation because they feel uncertain. They look for clues and expect someone else to act first. In other words, they depend on the reactions of other people to decide what to do. This situation is called pluralistic ignorance. However, the more people witness emergency cases, the less is their desire to assist (Garcia, Weaver, Moskowitz & Darley, 2002). For instance, one may decide to ignore a car accident scene believing that someone would take the initiative and call for an ambulance. People usually decide against acting when more eyewitnesses are present in a scene of crime or accident because they all assume that somebody else would take responsibility and come to the victim’s rescue. Thus, the bystander effect thrives through the diffusion of responsibility. Although bystanders empathize with the victim, they remain idle (Hall, 2003). Interestingly, bystanders are not conscious that their decision to hold back influences other people to remain inactive.
Although people believe they would act heroically in grave situations, they refrain from helping in real life situation, especially when other people are present at the site. Following the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964, John M. Darley and Bibb Latané extensively researched the phenomenon in the late 1960s to learn why people did not act to help the girl. Thirty-eight neighbors of Kitty Genovese could hear the victim’s screams and plea for help and all of them ignored the assault (Bystander Apathy Experiment, 2009). For their research, they recruited university students. Their research showed that sole bystanders helped when they thought they were the only one who knew about an incident. However, bigger groups displayed fewer reactions to the incident, which prompted other researchers to observe a reduction in helping behavior in the presence of others (Hortensius & de Gelder, 2018). These results are very disturbing as a person could be dying, just as in the case of Kitty Genovese when no one tried to intervene. People should know that their choice can save a life and prevent bigger harm.
Some bystanders may feel that there is no need to help a victim because they believe that the victim can overcome a problem. Others think that they are not competent enough to offer assistance. In some cases, the lack of a relationship between the victim and the bystander may make the onlooker to hold back their help. The bystander effect happens passively because the many people who fail to offer help to a needy person do not know that their own underlying instincts influence them to do nothing.
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Bystander Apathy Experiment. (Jul 15, 2009). Explorable.com. Retrieved Apr 16 2019, from Explorable.com: https://explorable.com/bystander-apathy-experiment
Chekroun, P., & Brauer, M. (2002). The bystander effect and social control behavior: The effect of the presence of others on people’s reactions to norm violations. European Journal of Social Psychology, 32(6), 853-867.
Fischer, P., Krueger, J. I., Greitemeyer, T., Vogrincic, C., Kastenmüller, A., Frey, D., … & Kainbacher, M. (2011). The bystander-effect: A meta-analytic review on bystander intervention in dangerous and non-dangerous emergencies. Psychological Bulletin, 137(4), 517.
Garcia, S. M., Weaver, K., Moskowitz, G. B., & Darley, J. M. (2002). Crowded minds: the implicit bystander effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(4), 843.
Hall, E. J. (2003). The bystander effect. Health Physics, 85(1), 31-35.
Hortensius, R., & de Gelder, B. (2018). From Empathy to Apathy: The Bystander Effect Revisited. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(4), 249–256. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721417749653