The Bystander Effect

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‘The Bystander Effect’

Lily is thirteen years old and tall for her age. One afternoon, she confronts a suspicious looking stranger near a young girl playing in the local park. The stranger takes to his heels when Lily challenges him. Lily’s bravery is the talk of the neighbourhood. On learning of this, a student who is studying social psychology makes the comment: It’s just as well that Lily’s usual playmates were not around or that little girl might not have received any help. (Vaughan and Hogg, 2005, p.358)

When it comes to helping others, studies have uncovered an apparent paradox in social psychology called the ‘bystander effect’ (Weiten 2007, p.684). The bystander effect is a theory of pro-social or helping behaviour (Vaughan and Hogg, 2005, p. 538) and is defined as “the phenomenon that the more people present when help is needed the less likely any one of them is to provide assistance” (Penguin Dictionary of Psychology 1985, p.104).

This essay will critically discuss the above scenario, referring to the social psychology student’s comments, using the ‘bystander effect’ theory of pro-social behaviour as its framework. Factors which influence ‘bystander intervention’ and what makes it more or less likely that a person will help a stranger will also be identified and examined.

In the above scenario we see Lily confronted with a situation involving a potential predator. Lily, even though tall for her age, is still perceived as considerably young at only thirteen to confront a male adult alone and human logic suggests that had Lily’s friends been present there would have been ‘safety in numbers’ and therefore a correspondingly greater probability that someone will help (School of Health and Human Services 2007, p.13).

However, Darley and Latane (1968, p. 377) founders in the area of helping behaviour and bystander effect research argue that when faced with the prospect of helping others we ‘behave quite differently in a group than when we are alone’. Whilst many models and theories have been created to understand the processes behind this effect, Darley and Latane’s model of bystander intervention (School of Human and Health Services, 2007, p.13) proposes that there are a number of factors influencing bystander phenomena, including emotionality and the presence of others, and whether a person helps or not depends on the outcome of a series of decisions.

The bystander effect phenomenon first came to researcher’s attention after the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City, when thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks. It is due to this infamous murder case that the bystander effect is also known as the "Genovese Effect" or "Bystander Apathy" with one consistent and repeated finding in research studies on this phenomena being that a bystander is less likely to help if there are other bystanders present (Darley & Latane 1968, p. 378).

Popular media often highlights reports of a robbery, mugging or in Kitty’s case, murder which happens in “broad daylight” or the presence of others. Domestic and marital disputes are another example of a situation where a bystander may not intervene as was demonstrated in a study involving staged fighting between a supposed “couple”. An overwhelming seventy percent of the participants interpreted this immediately as a domestic argument and only 4% felt the two were complete strangers and considered bystander intervention (Kenrick, Neuberg & Cialdini, 2005).

In the above scenario, if Lily had not been alone when she encountered the young girl her friends may have questioned her concern or sense of moral duty, convincing her to act differently. Referred to as “audience inhibition” (School of Health and Human Services, 2007, p. 14) the presence of friends may have made Lily feel embarrassed or self-conscious about helping. Lily would also have had the added fear of being accused of...
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