The Bystander Effect

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  • Topic: Bystander effect, Good Samaritan law, Kitty Genovese
  • Pages : 7 (2634 words )
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  • Published : May 5, 2008
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There is one question that has undoubtedly crossed the minds of most Americans at one time in their life, and continues to plague the country. Should I help or should I just walk away? What I am referring to is something psychologists have named the Bystander Effect. According to the Penguin Dictionary of Psychology, the bystander effect is defined as such: the more people present when help is needed, the less likely any of them is to provide assistance (2001). At first glance this definition seems a bit backwards. Common sense leads one to believe that there is safety in numbers. However, through research and personal exposure to this phenomenon in our society, the proof of this definition is all too shocking. One well known example of this is the homicide case in New York City involving Kitty Genovese. For roughly thirty-five minutes, thirty-eight residents in the apartments that overlooked the street watched from their windows as Kitty Genovese was brutally attacked and continually stabbed. Not a single resident offered assistance or in the least, called the police (Rosenthal 1964). Where does one begin to try and understand this careless disregard for the safety of others? This event is a perfect demonstration of the Bystander Effect. While the residents were watching the attack they also noticed that others were watching. With this knowledge of others’ awareness of the situation, a diffusion of responsibility occurs. “If others are known to be present, but their behavior cannot be closely observed, any one bystander can assume that one of the other observers is already taking action to end the emergency. Therefore, his own intervention would be only redundant---perhaps harmfully or confusingly so…thus convincing himself that ‘somebody else might be doing something’.” (Darley & Latanè 1968-1) This thought that someone else will assist the victim or that another bystander has probably called the police, enters most people’s mind at this stage. What Darley and Latanè also discovered was that people within their studies were worried about the shame and/or guilt that they would feel if they did not assist the victim. On the flip-side of this thought, the bystander did not want to be humiliated, embarrassed, or made a fool of (1968-1). One thing this shows is that people within our society could put their social standing or even their personal pride above a simple task as assisting a person in need. This reason is hopefully not the whole reason that a person would choose inaction, however it is involved on some level. Most emergencies are, or at least begin as, ambiguous events. A quarrel in the street may erupt into violence, but it may be simply a family argument. A man staggering may be suffering a coronary or an onset of diabetes; he may be simply drunk. Smoke pouring from a building may signal a fire; on the other hand, it may be simply steam or air-conditioning vapor. Before a bystander is likely to take action in such ambiguous situations, he must first define the event as an emergency and decide that intervention is the proper course of action…and he must decide that it is his personal responsibility to act. (Latanè & Darley 1968)

Bibb Latanè and John Darley found that a crowd, instead of having a higher rate of assistance, can force inaction on its members (1968-2). The popular thought is that a group could interact and discuss the situation and ultimately offer more assistance to a victim than a single person could. “An individual, seeing the inaction of others, will judge a situation as less serious than he would if he were alone…Until someone acts, each person only sees the other non-responding bystanders, and is likely to be influenced not to act himself” (1968-2). The only way to completely understand these findings and their proceeding actions is for one to observe people in a situation to see how they would truly act. Irving Piliavin, Judith Rodin, and Jane Piliavin conducted a...
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