Bystander Effect: Definition, Overview, and Example

Bystander Effect Definition

The bystander effect, also known as bystander apathy, is a term in psychology that refers to the tendency of people to take no action in an emergency situation when others are present. This phenomenon has been extensively studied in the field of sociology.

Bystander Effect Explained

Psychologically, there are many causes for the bystander effect. They range from assuming that someone else is responsible to not understanding the seriousness of a situation because other people are not taking action. In fact, first responders need the training to ignore that feeling and offer help when they see a situation they believe to be an emergency.

This concept was popularized after the murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City in 1964, from which the term “Genovese Syndrome” originated. The term “bystander effect” was coined in 1969 by John Darley and Bibb Latane to refer to the effect of certain social pressures on emergency response to people.

bystander effect

As the above picture shows, there are a number of possible reasons people might ignore an emergency situation. The side effect is a sociological issue because it is often an effect of the “group think” or “herd mentality”.

Bystander Effect Examples

In an emergency, a person must first decide whether or not there is actually an emergency. This decision, when the individual is alone, is based on previous experience and training. However, Latane and Darley concluded that in the presence of others, individuals tend to seek others out to make the right decision.

Seeing the inaction of others can develop a pluralistic response that leads one group to delay or take no action. Additionally, seeing the inaction of others can lead people to perceive the situation as less serious than it actually is.

The second decision a person must make when an emergency situation is identified is what to do. When a group of people is also present, the responsibility of a single person is less.

In this situation, any individual in a large group may feel that it is not their responsibility to act first. In order for a person to act first, they must assume a greater degree of personal responsibility than their part.

The third decision component of the emergency response, once the appropriate course of action is determined, is to deal with the individual with situational factors that pre vent them from acting.

Latane and Darley have shown in their experiments that people act far less often in the presence of strangers than people in the presence of friends. In addition, people who even met the victim briefly respond much more often.

Bystander Effect Experiments and History

On March 13, 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese returned to her apartment in Queens, New York, when she was attacked by Winston Moseley. Moseley raped and stabbed Genovese in front of her apartment while 38 people watched and did nothing. The police were called, but the call was dismissed as an “internal dispute”. The national media recorded the story and public outrage towards the viewers.

In 1969, five years after the murder, social psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley published “Bystander Apathy” in American Scientist. In this work, they performed four separate experiments to test the effects of social interaction on emergency response.

The experiments put the test persons in an artificial situation in which a small emergency event took place and correlated their reaction with the actions of the actors in the experiment room.

The result of the experiments showed that there are social factors that influence the three different business continuity management decisions. The side effect has found a place in social psychology to explain the cumulative effects of multiple social tendencies during the occurrence of an emergency.

The term “bystander apathy” is considered incorrect because it was found during the experiments that the subjects experienced real concern even though they did not act. However, this term is still widely used in news agencies to create a dramatic impact.

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