and Thinking Sociologically
Bibb Latane and John Darley
Why Don't People
the early morning hours of March 13, 1964, a woman named Kitty Genovese
was brutally stabbed to death in front of her New York apartment.
we all know, murders are not uncommon in New York Cityˇor
any other American city for that matter. What made this case troubling
was the fact that about 40 people either heard her scream for help
or watched her being stabbed from their apartment windows. No one
called the police until about 35 minutes after the attack had begun.1
When the story appeared in the newspaper, the public was outraged.
How could people be so insensitive to the suffering of another?
Why didn't anyone help her? Some newspaper editors and psychiatrists
at the time blamed the behavior on "bystander apathy"
or growing "urban alienation." The story became a metaphor
for modern city life.
however, speculated that the failure of people to get involved might
be due more to the social influence that bystanders have on each
other than to individual callousness.
test this theory, two social psychologists, Bibb Latane and John
Darley, conducted a series of experiments on helping behavior in
the first experiment the room in which subjects were completing
written surveys gradually filled with smoke.
the second experiment subjects heard a loud crashing noise from
an adjoining room, followed by a woman's screaming, "Oh my
God, my foot . . . I . . . I . . . can't move it. Oh my ankle. I
. . . can't get this . . . thing off me."3
the third study subjects were participating in a discussion over
an intercom when one of them suddenly choked, gasped, and called
out for help.
each situation, the number of individuals present at the time of
the emergency was varied so that some subjects were alone and others
were with several people.
researchers consistently found that as the number of bystanders
increased, the likelihood that any one of them would help decreased.
It appeared that people help others more often and more quickly
phenomenon, which is often called the bystander effect, has a couple
of sociological explanations.
the more bystanders present, the more likely it is that we will
assume someone else will help. If we are by ourselves when an emergency
occurs, we perceive ourselves to be 100% responsible for taking
action. However, when there are 10 bystanders, we each perceive
ourselves to have only a tenth of the responsibility. The higher
the number of bystanders, the less obligated each individual is
likely to feel to intervene.
if we are unsure of our own perceptions and interpretations, or
if the situation is ambiguous, we look to others for help in defining
what is going on. If others appear calm, we may decide that whatever
is happening doesn't require our assistance.
people often try to avoid showing outward signs of worry or concern
until they see that other people are alarmed. This sort of caution
encourages others not to define the situation as one requiring assistance
and therefore inhibits the urge to help. The larger the number of
people who don't seem concerned, the stronger the inhibiting influence.
Obviously, helping will not be inhibited if others are showing visible
alarm or if the situation is so unambiguous that one doesn't need
to look to the reactions of othersˇas with a car accident,
Genovese's neighbors weren't necessarily cruel, cold, or apathetic.
They may simply have been victims of social influence, with each
looking to others for information, waiting for someone else to define
the situation and act. Because everyone was waiting for someone
else to do something, no one did anything.
1Seedman, A. A., & Hellman,
P. 1975. Chief. New York: Avon.
2Latane, B., & Darley,
J. 1970. The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn't he help?
New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
3Latane, B., & Rodin, J.
1969. "A lady in distress: Inhibiting effects of friends and
strangers on bystander intervention." Journal of Experimental
Social Psychology, 5, 189-202.
4Clark, R. D., III, & Word,
L. E. 1972. "Why don't bystanders help? Because of ambiguity."
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24, 392-400.
David Newman and Rebecca Smith.
(Created September 14, 1999). Copyright Pine Forge Press.