Keeping it real and using science to explain

What Can You Do to Change the Bystander Effect?

Posted in Uncategorized
at 2015.07.29

helping another

On July 4th, 2015 Kevin Joseph Sutherland, a former congressional intern, was killed aboard a Washington D.C. Metro train in a horrific crime after being repeatedly punched and stabbed in the chest, abdomen, arms, back, side and arms. He suffered 30-40 cuts and stab wounds, fatally piercing his heart and lungs.

Witnesses who were riding on the train sat frozen in horror, too terrified to step in and attempt to stop the assailant.

The Kitty Genovese Slaying

Afterward pundits reflected back on a similar iconic bystander event, 1964 Kitty Genovese slaying in New York and were once again confounded that the numerous bystanders reported having witnessed the Sutherland attack,  did nothing to intervene.

According to reflection from the original report of the Kitty Genovese slaying, several of the bystanders thought other witnesses would take the responsibility to call the police or had already done so and, therefore, reasoned they did not need to respond.  A newspaper report, later criticized for being imprecise, accused 38 law abiding citizens of doing nothing to help Kitty out- not one of them calling the police- and when asked why,  “I did not want to get involved,”stated one witness and another offered, “I was tired.”

The 1964 event, sparked a furor and transformative effect on the nation, spurring psychologists to study the phenomenon, dubbing it the “Genovese’s or “Bystanders effect.”

The Bystanders phenomenon was later studied and established as a concept by two social psychologists, Bibb Latane and John Darley in 1968.

The question the duo raised was, “Why do people who are so willing to help in a non-emergency situation don’t in emergency situations?”

Diffusion of responsibility

According to Psychology Today, “Latané and Darley attributed the bystander effect to the perceived diffusion of responsibility (onlookers are more likely to intervene if there are few or no other witnesses) and social influence (individuals in a group monitor the behavior of those around them to determine how to act).”

And what happens when there is a single witness? The experiments conducted by Latane and Darley showed that people are more likely to help out if they are alone (70%), far less if there is another witness (40%) and the least reactive or likely to offer assistance if another witness does not react or is “passive” during the event (7%).

“Safety in numbers” may not apply

The conclusion we can deduct from the bystander effect is to not have a false sense of security in a crowd.  Should you lay injured on the street your odds of survival and your chance of receiving help is greatly diminished, according to the social phenomenon, if you are surrounded by a crowd than when only one witness is standing next to you.

A society of detach-ees

Some believe that fundamentally society has lost its moral compass as part of a larger trend toward becoming detach-ees. More people are content living alone, or at best within a small social circle. Especially, in an era when many of us have traded digital relationships for face to face communications, considered head and shoulders above for development of social skills, empathy and pro-social behavior.

Overcoming the bystander effect

It is important to bear in mind that self-less concern for others does not always come naturally. The behavior of altruism, or the practice of self-less concern for the well-being of others, without the expectation of reciprocity or compensation for oneself, has confounded theologians.

How does it makes evolutionary sense?  Can we pass on our altruistic genes if we risk dying off such “evolutionary gems” in an effort to save another? Why are some of us are more altruistic than others? Can we be both an altruist and a Darwinist-survival of the fittest, within the same breath?

I would like to believe the powerful lure, that we all have the capability of altruism, that compassion can be cultivated and that by observing others lending a helping hand to someone who has fallen would have a demonstrative and powerful effect on others and with that the commensurate responsibility to be active bystanders.

Be an active bystander

How can you “step up” and help out? Unless your a police officer, you would not want to intervene if someone was being attacked or the environment was dangerous or risk becoming a victim yourself. Instead, call 911 and be observant of everything around you to give as much information as you can to the police.

If it is safe to do so remain with the victim until the police arrive. A victim of a crime is likely to be confused, afraid, dazed and unable to remember important details related to the crime. They also may be too confused to even know where they are.

If the victim is seriously injured, minutes matter in saving a life. The best way you can help, if you are not trained or comfortable in providing CPR, is to describe the type of injuries you see and your location to 911. The more information you provide, the faster and better-equipped emergency responders will be in assessing the level and resources needed to respond.

All it takes is one person to take control to overcome the bystander effect.

If you are in a crowd identify someone near you- point and say, “You in the white shirt, call 911 and you in the brown jacket, go get help.” Shout out, “Does anyone know CPR?”

In a perfect world, we would all be trained to respond to an emergency. Everyone would know CPR, and we all would have the perfect confidence, altruism, and the heroism to step in and save the day. But it doesn’t have to be a perfect world, it just has to be one person who will step forward and redefine the bystander effect. What would you do?

This post was written as part of the Nurse Blog Carnival. More posts on this topic can be found at If you are interested in participating find out more details and sign up.

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12 thoughts on “What Can You Do to Change the Bystander Effect?”

  1. Great post, Cynthia. It’s so interesting- my husband and I were just talking about how as a HVAC technician he had gotten CPR training. He was telling me that there was no way he would ever use it and that he’d let others jump in and help out. I wonder if part of the bystander issue is because we don’t feel confident that we can actually do something about the situation. As in the case of my hubby, a HVAC tech with no medical training- he says he’s too scared to use the CPR training he learned. Very well written and thanks for sharing this article that makes us reflect on how we would help out (or not)!

    1. Thank you Elizabeth for your thoughts. I can certainly appreciate people who have had CPR training like your husband, but still do not feel confident that they will know what to do in an urgent situation. If I sat and thought about all the emergencies that I could encounter, I would also feel unsure. But, what is amazing is how the adrenaline rush can kick in and instincts go into auto-pilot. You will find yourself acting very quickly. Even an untrained bystander can begin Hands-On CPR until help arrives. If anyone would like to learn more, The American Heart Association is a great resource for CPR classes, and information:

      Elizabeth, thank you kindly for visiting!

  2. Excellent piece Cynthia.
    As a mom of an adult child with autism, I am often found in situations where a crowd surrounds my daughter and me … the midst of one of her behavioral outbursts.

    How can bystanders help? For sure….gawking and making negative comments doesn’t help at all.
    Sometimes, the best thing someone can do is to ask me how they can help? No formal training…just offer to help…and follow instructions given.

    Thanks for sharing this!

    1. Thank you, Donna! I sure can see how frustrating that would be to have people not responding but to instead make rude or negative comments. I like how you phrase it, ‘No formal training-just offer to help…..and follow instructions given.’ That would be common sense, especially when children are involved. Human nature is well…sometimes not always what we would hope for or expect. But then we hear these wonderful heartfelt stories of people stopping to help others and incredible acts of heroism and altruism and it gives us such inspiration and hope. It keeps us going…. and believing in well,….us.

      Donna, thank you for visiting!

  3. Kelly Payne says:

    This is such an interesting concept of human nature. It is baffling to think about. I “think” I would always stop to assist others in an emergency, but that is probably why I became a nurse in the first place! I became certified as a BLS instructor this year, and ACLS (which is not required in my area of women’s health). I took both of these to feel more prepared in the case of an emergency ANYWHERE. I’ve stopped at an accident before and helped a little girl at the pool that cut open her head… In reflection both of those instances I provided more comfort (as compared to medical intervention) in both cases just by simply letting the family know “I was a nurse”. Thanks for sharing a great post!

    1. Kelly, that is awesome that you have become certified and have taken the ACLS to feel more prepared. I am sure you felt so good about being able to help in that emergency with the little girl and the accident that you stopped for. I know that if I was in an emergency in a place that was either remote or did not have immediate access to medical care, I would certainly want a “guardian angel” such as yourself very close by! Kelly, thank you for sharing your experiences!

  4. Cynthia, great information. I think that Hands Only CPR introduced by the American Heart Association can help lay people feel more confident assisting in emergency situations. As a woman that travels often with small children, I don’t always feel safe offering assistance. I appreciate that you included how to assist when you may not feel safe jumping into the fray.

    1. Carrie Sue, I agree. The AHA recommends Hands-Only CPR if you know nothing at all about CPR and/or if you feel unsure of your skills. For more information, the is a great resource. I think more people would feel much more comfortable if they had just one thing they realized that they could do. And you make a good point, about not feeling comfortable jumping into the fray if you are traveling with small children. You certainly would not want to risk your loved ones if there was danger. As you point out, there may be a way we can assist. Instead of jumping in, once we are safe, we can call 911- the most important first step! Carrie Sue, thank you for visiting!

  5. John Keith says:

    Great article Cynthia! Thank you for sharing it with us. I would have thought that if more people were around in a situation tat required intervention the more likely the injured person would receive help. It appears the opposite is true, which is scary. Very interesting article!

    1. Thank you, John! I agree. You would definitely think the opposite- that is if more people were around they would feel compelled to take action. Is it ‘diffusion of responsibility’ or ‘confusion of responsibility’? Personality type or past experience and knowledge that determine who becomes an active bystander? My take on it is that I think caring and social responsibility can be reinforced and taught in training programs in our schools and communities. However, we will never know how people will ultimately react until they find themselves in the middle of a crisis. Thank you for visiting!

      1. I think you are right. If people were introduced to the proper steps to take in an emergency situation then they would be more likely to help if the time ever came to do so. I think ultimately it is a variety of factors that keeps people from intervening. Again great post and thank you for sharing!

        1. So true! And hopefully, if more people knew the steps to take their confidence could make all the difference in lending a hand. Thank you for your reply!

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