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What Are the Causes of the Bystander Effect?

Bystander effect is explained as when they witnessed the tragic event happen before their very eyes will only want to act when others will start to spring into action. / Photo by: prathaan via 123rf


There is an assumption that when a person is a witness of a crime, or when they see someone suffering right in front of them, they will be driven with a sense of urgency to help the victim. It is expected that an individual’s will to do good would be enough to motivate them to act. Yet, this is not always the case.

Sometimes, others who are watching the tragic event happen before their very eyes will only want to act when others will start to spring into action. This is explained as part of what happens in the Bystander Effect, demonstrated by the news of Kitty Genovese’s death in March 1964.


What Is The Bystander Effect?

The Bystander Effect is a term coined by the social psychologists Bibb and John Darley, which they refer to as the reason why the witnesses did not take action when they saw Kitty Genovese being stabbed outside her apartment, Psychology Today says.

It is described by Verywell Mind as a phenomenon wherein the more people are in the area, the smaller the chances are that a person will be rescued from distress. It is also known as the diffusion of responsibility.

This often does not happen if the individual is by themselves. If they are the only one witnessing the emergency situation, since no one else will be able to shoulder the responsibility of helping the victim, they may feel that the pressure is placed on them.


Verywell Mind explained bystander effect as a phenomenon wherein the more people are in the area, the smaller the chances are that a person will be rescued from distress. / Photo by: stieberszabolcs via 123rf


The Kitty Genovese Case

In Genovese’s case, although there were 38 people present in the scene, no one tried to ask the assistance of the police during that time or tried to save her. They just passively watched her being murdered for half an hour, even though she was desperately crying for help. It was only 20 minutes later when the police force was contacted.

It was first publicized in the New York Times but it was sensationalized and some parts of the story about her death were not accurate. From then on, many psychology textbooks had referred to the incident. In a 2007 issue of the American Psychologist, it was shown that the incident has become very distorted because of the inaccuracies which were constantly published both in psychology textbooks and news articles.



According to Exploring Your Mind, some of the reasons that cause the Bystander Effect are:

Presence of other people

Being surrounded by other witnesses means that there may be someone else who can help. As a crowd, they share the responsibility of acting or not acting on the victim’s circumstance. They may have also presumed that other people are in the process of giving assistance or that someone had already taken a certain action to resolve the problem.

There is also the sense that if none of them provide the help needed, all of them would share the same feelings of guilt.

Having to act in a socially acceptable manner

In connection with this, the decision of the witnesses is not only based on their ethics and morals, but also of their interpretation of the situation. If they do not understand what is actually happening, they may not act due to this confusion. In Kitty Genovese’s case, some people who were interviewed about why they did not stop the murderer from stabbing her, they answered that they had mistaken it for a lover’s quarrel.

Those who are part of a crisis will try to assess other people’s response to the situation. Since other people are not doing anything about the crisis, they may see this as a sign that they should also not act upon it.

Being afraid of getting involved

They are afraid that the person harming the victim may retaliate or harm them in a similar way if they try to help. They may also want to avoid being part of the police procedures. They may also not like other people watching them. Also, they may also be fearful of other unknown dangers.


Some are afraid that the person harming the victim may harm them in similar way so they chose not to get involved. / Photo by: ocusfocus via 123rf


Is There a Way to Stop the Bystander Effect?

Fortunately, there are some small ways that a person can prevent the Bystander Effect from taking place. Being educated about it is one of the steps they can take. By being able to identify what makes them hesitate to act in the presence of other witnesses, this will help make them make a more conscious decision to assist the victim when such an emergency arises. They should be cautious when helping and try not to put themselves in danger.

If they happen to be the victim of an emergency situation, they can elicit help by singling out a person from the group of observers. It is suggested that they make eye contact with a witness and specifically voice out their need for assistance. As a result, it would be difficult for them to reject their cry of help since it was personalized and individualized.





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