The bystander effect is a sociopsychological phenomena which occurs when someone within a group witnesses an emergency situation and doesn’t attempt to help. Instead that individual assumes that their assistance is not needed and someone else will step in to get the situation under control. Originally coined after the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964, psychologists took to the story and conducted a number of studies on how and why this phenomena exists within otherwise moral individuals. To better illustrate this idea we should first take a look at the crime that inspired the psychologists to construct this theory.

The Murder of Kitty Genovese

Winston Moseley

Winston Moseley

It was the early morning hours of March 13, 1964. After a long night at work, Catherine “Kitty” Genovese had just exited her vehicle in her apartment complex parking lot. As she began walking towards the complex door, just 100 feet from where she had parked, she was approached by Winston Moseley. Kitty began to run, but Moseley quickly caught up with her and stabbed her in the back.

Kitty began to scream “Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!” Several neighbors later reported hearing a commotion, but did not immediately realize that the noises were a cry for help. At least one man did witness the stabbing, however. Robert Mozer yelled “Let that girl alone!” when he noticed the struggle between Kitty and Moseley. Injured, but still alive, Kitty staggered to the back entrance of her apartment complex. Moseley ran away after Mozer yelled out to him, but he returned the scene just ten minutes later.

Moseley caught up with Kitty, now lying half unconscious within the back hallway corridor of the apartment complex. Moseley proceeded to stab her several more times and rape the woman. Stab wounds on her hands lead investigators to suspect that Kitty had attempted to defend herself unsuccessfully against the attack.

Neighbors were eventually able to reach emergency services and Kitty Genovese died en route to the hospital.

Separating Fact from Fiction

Taking place in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens, NY, the story of Kitty Genovese’s murder has often been cited as a cruel parable on the cold callousness of city living. How a young woman could be brutally raped and murdered with at least 38 witnesses present or near the area, but chose to stand back and do nothing because they didn’t want to get involved.

This is not exactly how the events of that March 13th morning transpired.

The number of witnesses on the scene were later determined to be greatly exaggerated by the media. 12 people were in the area who either directly witnessed the attack or heard screams. Of those 12 people, Robert Mozer did yell out to Moseley during the initial attack on Kitty. Additionally, most, if not all, of the 12 who heard or saw the attack attempted to contact authorities. Another neighbor, Sophie Farrar, came to sit at Genovese’s side as she lay dying after the second attack, unaware if Moseley had fled the scene or not. A far cry from the “38 witnesses who did nothing.”

The Aftermath

While the story may have been embellished in an attempt to sell newspapers, leaving the public with an apathetic legend ingrained within their psyche, the truth on what happened to Kitty Genovese that morning did inspire progressive action within the community.

Some of the neighbors who attempted to get in touch with the authorities complained that they had difficulty getting through on the existing phone system. The 9-9-9 emergency phone system had existed throughout the United Kingdom prior to the murder of Kitty Genovese and there were already plans in place to implement a similar system within the United States as well. The murder caused such a public stir that AT&T was almost forced into implementing the system as soon as possible, settling on 9-1-1 as the official emergency response number in 1968.

The Bystander Effect

Kitty Genovese

Kitty Genovese

As previously mentioned, the murder of Kitty Genovese also spurred psychologists to look into something they later termed the bystander effect, or sometimes called “Genovese syndrome”. Though the interest may have been sparked by exaggerated claims, psychologists discovered that the more people around at the time a crime or emergency situation is occurring, the less likely someone is willing to step in and help diffuse the situation.

The reason for this phenomena is theorized to rely on two factors: diffusion of responsibility and pluralistic ignorance.

When many people are around, the less responsible we feel as individuals to step in and assist while a crime is occurring. In contrast, when we happen to be the only person present while a crime is occurring, the responsibility rests solely upon us to see to it that a victim receives some form of assistance. Therefore, when in a group of people, the responsibility to help is not resting on our shoulders and we expect someone else to step in and either alert the police or help in some way.

Additionally, when in a group of people, if we see someone in distress we may not realize that we are baring witness to a crime. As social creatures, it is a part of human nature to look to others and observe their reactions to the situation. If we fail to see others in distress or concerned with the situation unfolding in front of us, then we assume that there is no reason to react.

Many of us, including myself, would like to think that if we witnessed a violent crime occurring right before our eyes in a crowd of people that the first thing we would do is try to help the situation. Unfortunately, this may not be true. While not all of us have bore witness to crimes, how many of us have been traveling down the down the road and witnessed a motorist pulled over with car trouble?

We could easily stop to ask if the motorist needs assistance, but often we assume that either that person has the situation under control or has a phone handy to call for assistance and continue on to our destination unfazed by the matter. And while distressed motorists aren’t entirely comparable to witnessing a terrible crime, it is an easily relatable example of how casually we just assume that a situation is under control and does not require our intervention.

Readers weigh in:

Now that we’ve discussed the bystander effect, how likely do you believe you are to fall victim to it?