The Bystander Effect: What You Need To Know

In March of 1964 at about 3:00AM, a young woman by the name of Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in the middle of a street in New York. She should have been saved, thirty-eight people were watching from the windows of their apartments as she screamed for help as she was being attacked. And after the man (a business-machine operator by the name of Winston Moseley) left, he returned a few minutes later to stab her again, left, and then returned yet again to stab her once more before she died. Yet no one called the police until after she was already dead.

An elderly man, while sitting in a hospital waiting room, suddenly gasps and falls to the hard floor. He writhes in pain for several minutes before passing on. The other people sitting in the room watch and do nothing.

An 86 year-old veteran became the victim of a car jacking while at a gas station in February of this year. After the car-jackers broke his leg and sped off, he was forced to crawl on the ground to find help. ‘I noticed when I was crawling to the gas station, people were walking past by me like I wasn’t there’ the man said.

These stories sound horrific, because they are. You may have already heard one or two of these stories and thought to yourself, “Oh, goodness, if I had been there, I would have helped them! People are just sick these days!”

Well, folks, here is the truth: you probably would have done the same thing that everyone else did. The reason why is called “The Bystander Effect”.

Allow me to beg you to read on. Not just because you must know about this if you witness a horrific event, but you must know what to do if you are the subject of the event, and need to know how to stop the bystander effect from getting in the way of life-saving help.


I’ll try not to bore you, because I need you to keep reading. Here’s the short and sweet explanation of the psychology behind it all. There are two explanations for the stories I’ve told you, I will call them ‘group psychology’ and ‘fellow witness psychology’:

Group Psychology

We are social creatures. Period. We are hardwired to want to be part of groups, cliques, be fans of the same team or politician. We want to follow the status quo, be accepted by our peers, go with whatever flow is currently, ah, flowing.

So what happens when something unexpected, something not part of the social expectation happens? We look around to see what everyone else is doing.

Guess what everyone else is doing? The same thing you are! Think of the man who was car-jacked, here is what the people walking by him were thinking:

1. No one is doing anything, so he must not be that badly hurt.

2. Someone else will help him, I don’t want attention drawn to myself.


3. What if it’s an act of some sort?

Fellow Witness Psychology

Let’s look at the case of Kitty Genovese. This is perhaps more understandable.

The people looking outside of their windows probably saw other people witnessing the murder, and so simply concluded that someone else would call the police. Also, the uncertainty of the situation, the shock, would cause some people to simply pause and hope that someone else would do something so they would not have to.

When there is only one person witnessing the incident, they are far more likely to help someone in need.

What If It Happens To You?

I need to tell you that the advice I’m about to give you is not proven, nor has it been tested (as far as I know, anyway). But from what I’ve read I hope this will give you the best shot of getting help, and not ending up like Kitty Genovese or any number of shooting victims.

A man by the name of Bernard Asbell wrote a wonderful book called What They Know About You (you may have noticed I mention this book quite a lot, and let me tell you, it’s for a good reason, this book is fantastic!), in a nutshell, social experiments have proven that, especially if you’re a woman, you are far more likely to get help if you manage even a flicker of eye contact. Why? Because remember – when you’re in a situation where you are the subject, you are separate from the people around you. So, to remedy this situation, you must remove someone else from them and make it we. Make them part of your situation. This may involve calling out something specific about them that makes it undeniable that you are talking to them, such as the color of their shirt or bag.

Several articles on what to do if you’re kidnapped (stay with me here!) suggest that a key to staying alive is to appear more human to someone who is currently a stranger to you. You can do this by saying that you have a family, how old you are, that people care about you and that you’re scared. I think that using this same idea with the bystander effect can be extremely useful.

The people who are in the iron grip of the bystander effect feel helpless and confused. It feels like a social straitjacket, an anchor on their actions. People will put their own lives at risk and, obviously, the lives of others in jeopardy because of the presence of other human beings.

The good news is, now that you know about the bystander effect, you will be able to control a situation where its grip takes control. Whether it’s over you, or the people around you.

I’m sorry to say it has been a couple of years since I looked into what recent research has been done into this, so I’ll edit this post in the next few days if I find something that I need to add/update. The driving force behind this post, honestly, is how frustrated I become when I hear news anchors talk down on the people who are affected by the bystander effect. They make comments about the deterioration of societal morals and our lack of empathy for our fellow man, when the only thing at play, for Pete’s sake, is just basic responses by our brain doing what it knows to do in a new situation. The stories are still horrific, the deaths, unnecessary and heartbreaking, but let’s not ignore the other factors and wag our fingers at those who walked by, shame-shaming them for reacting the way they did. I agree – they should have reacted differently, it doesn’t mean they could have. They didn’t know what to do, and didn’t have the understanding of what was happening to them, or their mind simply told them that it was not as serious, and that is easier to accept than to make a scene and have the whole thing end up being nothing.

I won’t bore you any longer by going on, but I do encourage you to look into the subject further.

Until I Write Again,



18 thoughts on “The Bystander Effect: What You Need To Know

  1. Thanks a lot for this article, I’ve read about the Bystander Effect and agree with you that people prefer talking about how horrifying our lack of empathy is rather than educating us on it so we can learn to fight against it. I once read an article about these numerous psychological effects that affect us without us realizing it, if I find the link I’ll post it so you can take a look :), (Sorry for the long comment but I find this fascinating)

    • Sir, if you have a long comment, then you are in the right place! We live on them here! 😀
      You are right about certain factors influencing us without our knowledge. The key word in every situation: stimuli. What we experience through our senses affects our every move and word and thought. I do wish that the media would educate the public on why people act the way they do. They can afford to use body language ‘experts’ that tell you what you already know, I don’t see why they can’t fit in someone with a smudge of knowledge in the field of psychology (those folks are only whipped out for an interview when stories like the Casey Anothony mess are reported.)

  2. Several related findings pop to mind that cast light from a different perspective:

    1) Interviews with people who made it out of the twin towers on 9/11 confirm a hypothesis that our brains are very slow to respond to situations that are wildly out of the ordinary, when fast response is what is needed. People who got out spent an average of 10 min. before deciding to leave – talking among themselves about whether they would have to use vacation time if they took the day off. Locking up files. Logging off computers, etc.

    2) In one experiment, the subject was asked to identify which of two lines projected on a screen was the shorter. The 20 or so others in the room were part of the experiment and when everyone else identified the wrong line, in about 85% of the cases, the test subject did the same – not trusting their perceptions when it was 20:1 against. However, when even one other person sided with them, something like 70% of subjects answered correctly. I think this suggests that in the kind of crises you mention, if one person acts, others are far more likely to follow.

    3) And counter to those stories, I read a review in the March 11, NY Times Book Review of “Beautiful Souls,” by Eyal Press.

    Accounts of an “ordinary” Austrian policeman who disobeyed orders and risked serious consequences to smuggle Jews out of Austria in 1938. He had none of the qualities of social disobedience, no history of rebellion, and a family to protect, but asked why he did it, he said, “I could do nothing else.” The book also profiles a Serb who saved Croats by lying about their ethnic identity. An Israeli soldier “from an elite unit who refused to serve in the occupied territories.” And a whistle-blower, fired for questioning some of the shoddy financial instruments her employer was pushing in the run-up to our financial crisis.

    I once helped a woman get her baby out of a VW Beetle with an engine fire in a 7-11 parking lot, but it was pure adrenelin/auto-pilot. There wasn’t that time for reflection, that “Should I?” in the stories you tell. t don’t think we can be certain how we’ll react in hypothetical situations, but I think choosing to act “honorably” in lesser crises increases the odds of behaving as we would like in more serious circumstances.

    • Ah, Mr. Mussell, you are truly one of my favorite bloggers of all time 😀

      Your comment brings to mind an interview with behavioral researcher Paul Ekman I saw last year (the clip is somewhere on YouTube I’m sure), where Ekman actually suggested that a ‘hero gene’ exists. The story that they were focusing on was the story of a man on a subway platform that saved the life of another by jumping onto him as the subway was approaching. People who don’t have the ‘hero gene’ are the ones that stand back in shock while people with the hero gene, as you just said, don’t even consider what they should do, and instead just jump into the situation.
      When asked why they did it, they answer, “What do you mean? There was no other choice for me.”

      Oh! The line experiment! I loved that one! There was also an experiment (I believe it was in the 70’s) where they placed one subject and several actors in a room to fill out a form. They then pumped smoke into the room through the bottom of the door and waited to see if the subject would do anything if everyone else did nothing. Video of the experiment shows her looking at the smoke, then glancing around at the people sitting near her, and remaining entirely still and silent. Incredible.

  3. That’s really interesting. I just learned something new.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything where someone was hurt. But while Blarney and I were in New Orleans, we sat down to watch a street performance with close to 100 people around. Some crazy drunk guy was looking up a girl’s skirt who was sitting next to us. Blarney and I told him to stop, and then the girl’s friend started to yell at him. Then we moved away because he started acting weird, and he could have been dangerous. Finally someone called a policeman over. But I wondered why it look 3 women to confront the guy before someone call the police.

  4. I was in Philadelphia and a man and I danced a bit as he tried to exit the bank door as I tried to enter. He was a grubby looking creep but short and solid and gave me a haymaker punch that dropped me right to the ground. It was lunch time sidewalks packed and not a person stopped to check me sprawled out. City of Brotherly Love my _ _ _. As a teacher I always intervened when a kid was being bullied.

  5. This feature of society has always left a strong impression of my empathic heart. Thank you for all your wonderful creations. ~h.

  6. Calling 911 is probably the only thing you can do these days. Getting involved in anything else can sometimes cause more hurt than help. Police are always telling society to get involved, but as soon as we do, someone is always ready to call “law suit”. Or if you try to help a victim in an attack, you risk getting hurt or killed yourself. No one wants to get involved because it usually ends up in a heartbreak. You really have to know what you’re doing and how to handle the situation before you get involved.
    I’m no use to situations like this…I usually panic and my thinking process is all screwed up.

  7. Very interesting. I myself are very private, and I do not like to get involved in anything that would make me have to be a witness to anything. Also, I do not feel the need to be part of groups of cliques, I tend to be solitary and go against the flow, though of course I have friends but that need to “fit in” is not that important. If anything, I stick out.

    Not too long ago, I saw an accident, a mild one, bumper to bumper. I kept on going, because I figured “they’ll sort it out amongst themselves” and also because I am selfish, I did not want to get involved. I admit to that.

    In the end, I think our own feelings of self-preservation are very strong, and I think they also play into this not wanting to get involved.

    • You’re entirely correct, Alannah Madame. A large part of not getting involved in the more dangerous situations does have to do with not wanting to get hurt ourselves, especially if it’s someone who we are not emotionally invested in. And as for the milder situations, we can’t help but want to avoid making a big scene. But people outside of the situation just look at the inactions of the people present and assume they are all coldhearted monsters. I truly wish that the media would cover the bystander effect much more.

  8. Pingback: Admitting My Own Moral Failings « Life and Other Misadventures

  9. I am really glad that you came across my blog because of which I found yours.
    This article is a great one, and it cleared hundreds of questions that have haunted me when I have faced situations like these or read or heard about them.
    The human mind is surely enigmatic – what, how and why it provokes us to do something or not has explanations that go beyond our thought process.
    I would like to read more on the subject.
    Keep posting!

  10. hi i just read your awesome reading and articles… right now i am a visual art major student in langley fine arts school and producing the portfolio for my graduation!! and my concept is the bystander effect. for five months i have explored, researched and produced art works all related to the bystander effect. also i am going to experiment the bystander effect in downtown.
    anyway!! your writing is really helpful. as you mentioned above, letting people know about the real situation and try to tell them the truth and what people are doing exactly is very important, and i wish producing my artworks would help them realize the fact.;)

    and recently i am working on my another art piece also related to the concept of bystander effect. this art piece needs some of the great quotes from anywhere (even from you since you are a great writer) if they are related to the my concept.(bystander effect ) so,,, if you have some great sources or quotes please contact me with my email!!!!
    finally, thank you very much for this kind of post. i really enjoy your writing a lot!!

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