In 1964 a murder occurred in Queens New York. A woman by the name Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death outside her home. When the killing was taking place, Kitty screamed out to her neighbours for help but no one came to her defence. On learning about the murder later, the neighbourhood and the country at large was terribly shocked at the whole thing especially because no one responded to her cry for help.
Two psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latane took interest in this incident. It was the impetus of their research on the ‘bystander effect’. They looked to find out just why all the neighbours did not heed to the poor woman’s plea and what factors influenced the same.
The bystander effect is characterised by the tendency of people not to take any action when in a group. Each member of the group assumes that another person will take responsibility. The bigger the group the higher the level of the bystander effect. This theory explains how the human mind works in many scenarios involving groups.
The two psychologists came up with various findings from the case study including:
The diffusion of responsibility
The diffusion of responsibility is one major reason that causes the bystander effect. The theory suggests that bystanders are less likely to intervene in an emergency situation when in a group. The presence of other people makes individuals feel less responsible.
Looking for guidance
Another aspect the bystander theory reveals is the fact that when people are in a group, they are more likely to look to others for guidance. When faced with a situation alone, you will interpret and take the necessary measures accordingly. However once in a group, individuals will look to other people in the group to interpret ambiguous situations for them.
Another aspect of the theory is pluralistic ignorance. People in a group will want to make a collective decision concerning how to respond. When everyone is expecting the next person to take responsibility, chances are eventually no one will do anything. At this point everyone has assumed ‘if no one has seen the need to do anything, why should i?’ This is what is referred to as pluralistic ignorance. Pluralistic ignorance is a kind of very dangerous state of apathy.
The two psychologists also carried out three experiments to find out the scenarios where bystanders are more likely react either in emergency or non-emergency situations. From the studies, they found that bystanders responded depending on how they were asked for help. For example, when a bystander was simply asked for a dime on the streets by a young man, they simply walked away. However, if the young man started by first introducing themselves by name they would get at the attention of the bystander. The young man got more responses when they started the conversation by alarming the bystander that their wallet had been stolen before asking them for a dime.
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