What can social psychology teach us about the ‘bystander effect’?

Published: 2023/07/06 Number of words: 1654

The ‘bystander effect’ refers to the phenomenon whereby individuals are apparently less likely to intervene in an emergency situation when others are also present (Latané & Darley, 1970). Perhaps the earliest notable instance of this (by virtue of being the incident which is credited with inspiring the term), was the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese. While there remains some debate around the accuracy of the account or its specifics, it was reported that as many as 38 witnesses might have seen or heard the attack; however, none attempted to take action (Manning, Levine, & Collins, 2008). In the decades since, social psychological research has made some process in dissecting this phenomenon in order to greater understand its underpinnings, as well as potential approaches to its prevention.

Early examples of this come from the researchers credited with coining the term itself; Latané & Darley (1968a) had participants overhear the sounds of an epileptic seizure, believing that they were either alone or that 1-4 others were within reach of the situation also. They found that the more other people were present, the slower the participants were to intervene, suggesting that a ‘diffusion of responsibility’ had taken place which lessened the individuals’ sense of obligation and inclination to step up. In a related experiment, Latané & Darley (1968b) placed participants in a smoke-filled room with other individuals who either did, or did not, react to what was taking place. It was found that participants were less likely to report the smoke where they saw others taking no interest. This suggested that individuals draw cues on the actual severity of a situation from the reactions of others; and are more likely to remain passive where others do so as well. As part of this body of research, Latané & Darley (1970) suggested that bystanders in emergency situations go through a five-stage cognitive and behavioural process in their likelihood of intervention; notice, interpret, degree of responsibility felt, form of assistance, and implement the action choice. It was further suggested that a lack of environmental familiarity and greater situational ambiguity can serve to enhance the influence of the bystander effect (Latané & Rodin, 1969; Latané & Darley, 1970).

A substantial body of wider research since has served to highlight how complex the bystander effect may be. For example, group cohesiveness has also been implicated in decreasing the impact of the bystander effect (Rutkowski, Gruder, & Romer, 1983). Specifically, a group with a greater degree of in-group cohesion may be more likely to collectively intervene in an emergency, regardless of whether or not that sense of cohesion extends to a victim. However, separate from group cohesion, similarities between helper and the one being helped may also increase the likelihood of intervention. Levine et al. (2005) created a hypothetical scenario whereby football fans were tested on their likelihood and speed of helping an individual wearing either their team’s jersey, or that of an opposing team. It was found that participants more readily offered assistance to those wearing their own team’s apparel.

The role of group size in the bystander effect has also been well-documented (Levine & Crowther, 2008). Namely, a larger group of bystanders typically reduces the likelihood of intervention. An exception to this rule being where the bystanders are friends, in accordance with previous findings around group cohesion (Levine et al., 2005; Levine & Crowther, 2008). However, other factors may further affect the bystander effect regardless of whether it is occurring alone or within a large group. For instance, significant gender differences have been observed. Namely, that women are seemingly more likely to step in and help in emergency situations than men, whether or not a person in need is themselves male or female (Cox & Adam, 2018). In addition to this, males appear to be more likely to help females than they are other males – while no major difference was found for females (Jenkins & Nickerson, 2016; Cox & Adam, 2018). One explanation for this difference might come from the interplay between masculinity and a fear of negative evaluation. Specifically, the social belief that men should be traditionally ‘strong’ and ‘self-sufficient’ has meant that males are less likely to help one another, while a fear of negative evaluation increases the likelihood of them help females (Tice & Baumeister, 1985; Karakashian et al., 2006; Leone et al., 2016).

The mediating effect of cross-cultural differences can serve to further enhance the complexity of the bystander effect. Cross-cultural studies of the effect have shown strong differences in rates of helping strangers in need; being as high as 93% in places such as Brazil and as a low as 40% in countries like Malaysia (Levine, Norenzayan, & Philbrick, 2001). It has been suggested that this may be the result of a cultural tradition of simpatia; that is, a society characterised by an emphasis on emotional warmth and positivity (Levine, Norenzayan, & Philbrick, 2001). This is as opposed to stricter, more reserved collectivist cultures like those of Asian countries; who often exhibit greater scepticism of out-group members (Gold, Colman, & Pulford, 2014; Chen, Kteily, & Ho, 2019).

However, there have been some criticisms of the supposed applicability of the bystander effect. Philpot et al. (2020) noted that the majority of previous research into the effect utilised either hypothetical lab-based scenarios, or more extreme case samples. As a result, they instead opted to analyse security camera footage of 219 street confrontations across England, The Netherlands, and South Africa. They found that roughly 90% of the time at least one (often more) bystanders intervened; with this likelihood actually increasing where there were more bystanders present. At first glance, findings such as this which so radically contradict previous studies might seem to suggest that the bystander effect might have be incorrectly interpreted. On the contrary, this study could in fact work in harmony with others that have supported the existence of the bystander effect. It is worth noting that Philpot et al. is a very recent study which may be demonstrating the natural progression of a change in societal attitudes, as well as the result of many different initiatives and policy changes which were explicitly designed to tackle the bystander effect (van Bommel et al., 2012; McGinnies, 2013). This shows that the most effective tool against the bystander effect is arguably simple self-awareness (van Bommel et al., 2012).


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van Bommel, M., van Prooijen, J., Elffers, H., & Van Lange, P. A. M. (2012). Be aware to care: Public self-awareness leads to a reversal of the bystander effect. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(4), 926-930. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2012.02.011

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