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A Second Look at the Bystander Effect

July 22, 2019

 

If you’ve ever read a psychology textbook, you’re probably familiar with the tragic and infuriating story of Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old New Yorker who in 1964 was stabbed to death near her building in full view of 38 bystanders, none of whom lifted a finger to intervene. This is the birth of the psychological term “bystander effect”: a situation wherein the larger the number of witnesses, the less likely they are to help, and the only problem with this origin story is that it basically didn’t happen.

 

In a 2007 piece in American Psychologist, Rachel Manning, Mark Levine, and Alan Collins examined archival evidence and found there was no proof of 38 people having been present at the time, there was no proof that those who were present were aware that Genovese was being fatally attacked (it was the middle of the night and her shouts for help were mistaken for a drunken argument; the second and fatal attack occurred in a vestibule out of anyone else’s eyeline), and there was also no proof that witnesses did nothing.

 

In fact, a neighbor initially scared away Genovese’s attacker, and multiple people called the police. (This was before the era of 911, when calling the police meant dialing up your local precinct and not necessarily getting a live person on the other end.) When an ambulance did eventually arrive for a dying Genovese, she was found in the arms of her neighbor Sophia Farrar, who had left her apartment to comfort Genovese despite not knowing if the culprit had left the area yet.

 

Still, what does this say about the bystander effect itself? Almost nothing; it’s anecdotal at best.

Here’s where the science comes in:

 

A team of researchers from the University of Copenhagen, the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement and Lancaster University examined unique video recordings of 219 arguments and assaults in inner cities of Amsterdam (Netherlands), Lancaster (UK) and Cape Town (South-Africa).

 

To test how often witnesses do intervene to help victims in violent situations, an international team of researchers studied security camera recordings of 219 public fights, all occurring in inner cities: Amsterdam, Lancaster, and Cape Town. The team found that 91% of the time, bystanders did intervene. Some gestured for the attacker to calm down, some physically separated the parties, and others attempted to console the victim. Typically, multiple people helped. This was true regardless of location; Cape Town may have a reputation as a dangerous place, but perception of one’s own safety didn’t seem to be a factor.

 

What’s more, having a greater number of bystanders seems to increase the likelihood that at least one will help. To the extend that “the bystander effect” is an observable phenomenon, it appears to be trumped by the benefits of having a larger pool of potential helpers.

 

As lead author Dr Richard Philpot of Lancaster University and University of Copenhagen put it, “The fact that bystanders are much more active than we think is a positive and reassuring story for potential victims of violence and the public as a whole. We need to develop crime prevention efforts which build on the willingness of bystanders to intervene.”

And apparently, we need to update some psychology textbooks.

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