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The Bystander Effect, What Would You Do?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

police tape on a fenceOn October 24, 2009 ten to twenty High School students stood passively by as a 15 year old girl was repeatedly gang raped and beaten over a two hour period. Yet, no one intervened to stop the crime. While the newspaper and television accounts of the crime shocked the nation, it is not the first time a crime occurs while citizens do nothing to rescue a victim. In fact, the phenomenon has a term called "The Bystander Effect."

The term was coined after the infamous and tragic Kitty Genovese case of 1965 that happened one late one night in Queens New York. In this case, Kitty Genovese, a twenty eight year old college graduate was coming home from work when she was attacked, raped and stabbed to death. She cried out for help and, although residents in the apartment building heard her pleas, no one helped with one exception. Someone yelled out the window to the attacker to leave her alone or they would call the police. The attacker ran off, the police were called, refused to believe anything serious happened and did not respond. While Miss Genevose lie on the ground, the attacker returned ten minutes later and stabbed her to death. Despite more cries for help no one responded.

In a more recent case people ignored a man who had been run over by an automobile and lied unconscious in the street while pedestrians walked by. In fact, one man was observed crossing the street and avoiding the man who was lying in the street. This individual just kept going.

There have even been a number of psychology experiments repeatedly demonstrating the same factor, that people do not respond if certain circumstances exist.

In this case, the right set of circumstances has to do with the size of the group observing an attack. The larger the group, the less likely is it that anyone will take action.  However, if there are only one or two people witnessing a crime, it is more likely someone will take action.

The deeper and more troubling question is why the bystander effect occurs?

Many theories have been put forward and among them are the following:

1. Everyone is convinced that someone else will do something.

2. There is a diffusion of responsibility in which the metaphor comes into play that, "No one rain drop believes it caused the flood." Here, the larger the group, the less pressure each witness feels to do anything helpful.

3. There is fear of victimization in which people avoid conflict because of the dread that they will be attacked if they help.

4. The larger the group the more likely it is that everyone will look to everyone else for clues about what to do. In this case, observing no one taking action is translated into something like, "It is not appropriate for me to take action."

5. People create their socially acceptable reasons for not taking actions, such as, "Well, no one else is doing anything because: it's a lover's quarrel; its just teenage pranks; its just innocent play acting,....etc."

I am old enough to remember when this was a real problem in the New York City subway system when gangs of teenagers would roam the trains late at night looking for victims to rape and rob. During these episodes, there were frequent circumstances in which bystanders took no action to protect the victim.

All of this reached a crisis point under the New York City administration of Mayor Ed Koch, during the 1970's or 80's when subway rider Bernard Getz, having been victimized by these young criminal in the past, rode the trains armed with a gun. One night, when approached by four youngsters whom he was convinced were about to attack him because they asked him for money, pulled out his gun and began firing. Ultimately, Getz was not held accountable even though it is illegal to carry a concealed weapon in the City unless one has a license. I suspect that the public strongly identified with Getz and felt no sorrow about the young and African American victims who were permanently paralyzed by the shooting.

After World War II most of the Nazis convicted of war crimes claimed as their defense that they were just following orders. In the examples above and others in psychological research, there really does appear to be reality to "just following orders" due to the impact and importance of social approval versus disapproval and rejection felt by most human beings.

What would you do if you found yourself witnessing these types of crimes? Would you stand and watch, walk away or intervene? I encourage your comments and observations.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD.