- Steve A. NidaSteve A. NidaThe Citadel, Department of Psychology
The brutal 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese sparked widespread public interest, primarily because it was reported to have taken place in view of some 38 witnesses, most of whom had seen the incident through the windows of their apartments in a high-rise building directly across the street. (Investigative work conducted some 50 years later suggests that there were not that many actual witnesses—more likely as few as seven or eight.) The ensuing analyses provided by newspaper columnists and others tended to focus on the callous indifference that had been demonstrated by those who had chosen not to intervene in the emergency, a state of affairs that came to be known, at least for a while, as “bystander apathy.” (It soon became clear, however, that bystanders in such events are rarely apathetic or indifferent.) Intrigued by the internal and interpersonal dynamics that might be involved, two social psychologists, Bibb Latané and John Darley, began a program of research that led to the conclusion that any notion of “safety in numbers” is illusory. In fact, it is the very presence of other people that may discourage helping in such circumstances. More specifically, other unresponsive bystanders may provide cues suggesting that the event is not serious and that inaction is the appropriate response. In addition, knowing that others are available to help allows the individual bystander to shift some of the responsibility for intervening to the others present, a process that Latané and Darley termed “diffusion of responsibility”; that is, the greater the number of others present, the easier it is for any one individual to assume that someone else will help. Subsequent research has demonstrated that this tendency for the individual to be less likely to help when part of a group than when alone—now known as the “bystander effect”—is a remarkably robust phenomenon. Even though social psychology has developed a thorough understanding of the mechanisms that drive this phenomenon, applying this knowledge is difficult, and significant incidents involving the bystander effect continue to occur.