The Bystander Effect
Why is it so easy to turn away from a problem? To ignore an issue and pretend nothing happened. When we see a crime being committed, the easiest option is to sit back and hope that someone else will step in and intervene, right? The problem doesn’t concern me; I am not responsible to act. The case of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese in the early 1960s is a painful reminder of the crucial need to intervene. Kitty Genovese, a 28-year old daughter of Italian-American parents, was walking home from a late night at work. She was an ordinary working girl—not at all wealthy, nor a member of any elite class—and she had been followed and brutally murdered on March 13, 1964. Winston Moseley—a 29-year-old married man with two children who had no criminal record prior to Kitty’s killing—ventured off that night on a mission to kill. In his confession Moseley proclaimed, "I went out that night intending to kill a woman" (Gado). As he stalked the victim from her place of employment, he made his move by her apartment complex. As she frantically fought for her life and screamed for help, 38 witnesses failed to come to her aid. During the last 32 horror-filled minutes of her life, Kitty was stabbed 17 times and sexually assaulted by Moseley, and not one of the 38 bystanders called 9-1-1. Some stood at their windows and watched, one yelled for the man to stop, which frightened Moseley and led him to run off, lest he got caught. However, within minutes, when he realized that no one was coming to Kitty’s aid, Moseley came back to finish what he started. She could have been saved. She could have been alive right now. But not one witness made a move during the 32 minutes she had to suffer before she died.
The Genovese case, though disturbing, is not unique. The inaction of the 38 witnesses to the murder is described by a psychological phenomenon known as the Bystander Effect. The Bystander Effect is defined by John M. Darley as an effect that “occurs when a person refrains from taking action because of the presence of others…the larger the crowd or group of bystanders, the more likely any given individual is to feel that he or she is not responsible for trying to alter whatever is going on.” According to the Bystander Effect theory, all 38 witnesses in the Genovese case failed to act because they believed that someone else would help—let someone else take the responsibility. It makes one question what they would do in a situation such as Kitty Genovese’s murder. We all like to see ourselves as heroes. We all like to think that we would have intervened and saved the day—or at least called 9-1-1. But in reality, would we really have done anything? Would you have risked the fear or hassle to help a stranger?
In terms of social psychology, the Bystander Effect is a crippling response to the loss of individuality faced in large cities. Kitty Genovese’s “case came to symbolize the corruption of modern city life, a life in which everyone is too frightened or too selfish to help another person, a life in which the value of humanitarianism has been forgotten," writes Professor Helen Benedict of Columbia University. The Bystander Effect is the result of the union of three social phenomena: diffusion of responsibility, social influence, and pluralistic ignorance. The marriage of these principles provides the perfect backdrop for the justification of inaction and lack of accountability in these cases. A common misconception among people is that there is safety in numbers. People feel that danger can be avoided or overcome if they are in a large group setting. However, according to the Bystander Effect Kitty Genovese would have been saved if there was only one eyewitness. When a single person is on a scene of a crime, they feel the responsibility to act because they are alone, and in their mind they are the victim’s ‘only hope’. However, when a crowd of people are witnessing a crime, the responsibility to help is shared throughout the...
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