Bystander Effect: Not Real(ly)

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kitty genovese1964: Kitty Genovese is stabbed at 3am; her stabber flees, and returns 30 minutes later and kills her.  The money quote from the 1964 New York Times: “For more than half an hour thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.”

And that’s what you get for reading the New York Times.

This is the famous “Bystander Effect”, replicated by several other studies: people are more likely to offer help when no one else is around; or, more accurately, the more people that are around, the less likely anyone is to do anything.

It turns out that this story isn’t correct; there weren’t 38 people, watching, and no one actually saw all of the attacks from beginning to end, and no one was actually with anyone else witnessing the attacks. So the prototypical example turns out to be a terrible example.

But so what? The “bystander effect” has been replicated many times, so what if the example is wrong? The first question that has to be answered is: what are narratives like the “bystander effect” for?

The importance lies in a key difference in the way knowledge claims are made in psychology compared with other science disciplines. For example… while the other science disciplines present information as abstracted ‘facts’, psychology textbooks tend to use experiments to demonstrate generalizations… where textbooks in other science disciplines describe the facts that readers must digest, “psychology textbooks present experiments and other evidence as the content that the beginner must learn”…. In the absence of a written tradition that describes uncontested facts, illustrative stories (such as the 38 witnesses narrative) play a key part in linking the catalogues of experimental and empirical material with the world of the known. They populate the psychological imagination of those who seek to integrate the psychological research with the social world.

It is here that the parable of the 38 witnesses who failed to help has its power. It provides a ‘cautionary tale’ about dangers to neighborliness that result from the conditions of modern life. It defines the parameters of the problem that social psychology needs to address. Attention is focused on the psychological consequences of the presence of others.

It tells us how to understand everyday life, even if it’s wrong.


Manning makes with an important observation: the narrative of the 38 witnesses in their apartments overlooking the alley, no one coming to Kitty’s aid, is actually not an example of crowd psychology. This wasn’t 38 people in the alley doing nothing, they were all separately walled off by brick and window. There was no crowd.

So they may have speculated that others would get involved, but this is quite different than the crowd promoting some inaction.

But Manning argues that it was necessary to link these “38” individual behaviors to a crowd, because a crowd was already understood to be a dangerous thing:

Until the emergence of the bystander tradition, the most common way that the dangers of group presence could be imagined was in terms of its capacity for violence… However, with the story of thee 38 witnesses comes the opposite possibility. The threat to social stability and social values still comes through the anonymity of the collective, but now the danger lies in passivity and inaction.

By linking it to the crowd, the explanation becomes self evident: since the 38 people consist of a crowd, and we know crowds are bad, we now understand why no one helped Kitty.

So what has the “bystander effect” done for social psychology? Manning main point is that by getting it wrong, it has inhibited creatively thinking and researching the pro-social and “helping” aspects of crowds.

But she almost incidentally mentions another consequence:

“By seeking to locate the explanation in crowd terms, they are attempting to move away from explanations based on individual pathology. In fact, the motivation of researchers…seems to be to redeem those accused of immoral or unfeeling behavior.”

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3 Responses to Bystander Effect: Not Real(ly)

  1. JohnJ says:

    The truth is always sacrificed in the service of a greater “truth”.

  2. Jerboa says:

    If that’s the goal, then it rarely seems to work. Most people get ridiculously indignant about the bystander effect. Like the Milgram experiment, everyone’s personal narrative is, “Fuck that shit, I wouldn’t stand around and let it happen.” But as someone who was weak enough to be caught in a mild bystander effect, I could see it happening. I was in line at the grocery store when someone roughly ten lines down screamed out, “Somebody help me over here!” The proper response in that situation would have been to sprint directly to the problem and do whatever I could to help. Instead I froze and stood around making awkward confused looks at everyone else, while they gave me the same dumb looks. All of us, like a herd of retarded cattle. It turned out the screamer was a prick who couldn’t get his self-checkout machine to work, but I still feel bad about not immediately rushing over.

    The most accurate description of the bystander effect I’ve ever read comes from the psychologist Robert Cialdini:

    “Very often an emergency is not obviously an emergency. . . Is the commotion next door an assault requiring the police or an especially loud marital spat where intervention would be inappropriate and unwelcome? What is going on? In times of such uncertainty, the natural tendency is to look around at the actions of others for clues.

    We can learn, from the way the other witnesses are reacting, whether the event is or is not an emergency. What is easy to forget, though, is that everybody else observing the event is likely to be looking for social evidence, too. And because we all prefer to appear poised and unflustered among others, we are likely to search for that evidence placidly, with brief, camouflaged glances at
    those around us. Therefore everyone is likely to see everyone else looking unruffled and failing to act. As a result, and by the principle of social proof, the event will be roundly interpreted as a nonemergency.”

    I think the purpose of these types of Psych 101 experiments is to inoculate individuals against the tendency to act in ways that are detrimental to our civilization, and that they will later regret. For Milgram and Zimbardo getting people’s sense of indignation involved is probably helpful. But it’s useless for the bystander effect, which is more of a cognitive failure than a moral one. The weird thing to me is that as often as the bystander effect is discussed, I’ve only ever seen Cialdini explain how to break it:

    “Once it is understood that the enemy is not some unmanageable societal condition like urban depersonalization but is, instead, the simple state of uncertainty, it becomes possible for emergency victims to take specific steps to protect themselves by reducing the bystanders’ uncertainty. Imagine, for example, you are spending a summer afternoon at a music concert in the park. As the concert ends and people begin leaving, you notice a slight numbness in one arm but dismiss it as nothing to be alarmed about. . . Soon you realize that something is drastically wrong. . . You try to get up but can’t. A terrifying thought slashes to mind: “Oh, God, I’m having a stroke!” Groups of people are passing by and most are paying you no attention. The few who notice the odd way you are slumped against the tree or the strange look on your face check the social evidence around them and, seeing that no one else is reacting with concern, walk on past convinced that nothing is wrong.

    Were you to find yourself in such a predicament, what could you do to overcome the odds against receiving help? . . . Even a resounding call for help is not your most effective tactic. Although it may reduce bystanders’ doubts about whether a real emergency exists, it will not remove several other important uncertainties within each onlooker’s mind . . . Based on the research findings we have seen, my advice would be to isolate one individual from the crowd: Stare, speak, and point directly at that person and no one else: “You, sir, in the blue jacket, I need help. Call an ambulance.” With that one utterance you should dispel all the uncertainties that might prevent or delay help. With that one statement you will have put the man in the blue jacket in the role of “rescuer.” He should now understand that emergency aid is needed; he should understand that he, not someone else, is responsible for providing the aid; and, finally, he should understand exactly how to provide it.”

    • Guy Fox says:

      It might not be a result of a demonstration effect. It could also be a plain ol’ collective action problem. Assuming there are other able bodied people around, which we are in fact assuming, why not let them do the work of helping? Why should you be left holding the bag? What are you, a Saint Bernard?

      An analogy from sports: the best thing a striker on a rush can hope for is too few defenders in the opponent’s penalty area or too many. With too few, he and his fellow attackers can out-manoever the defenders, and with too many, each defender will just wait for his colleagues to stop the rush, and since everyone is waiting, no actual defence gets done. Coaching legend Udo Lattek used to punish his own players if they ventured into their own penalty area when the ratio of defenders to attackers was already 1:1.

      Here’s the test: William Perry is laying across the sidewalk in the fetal position and moaning in front of a retirement home. You’re there and in good shape, but you’re also surrounded by two dozen women who look like late-stage Jessica Tandy. Do you still freeze or do you react and help The Fridge? Are you watching the biddies for cues on how to react, or do you instinctively realize that if anything is to happen, it’s up to you.

      Collective action could explain this, but you’d be hard pressed to explain that with reference to a demonstration effect. People saw it and kept walking, like dirty dishes lying in the sink (‘It’s not like I burned that omelette!’); they didn’t all crowd around and stare at each other.

      As for TLP’s larger point, yes, all history is revisionist even when it’s not historical.