By Caitlin Bull
On March 13th, 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was attacked by a man with a knife as she arrived home from her late night shift as a bar manager in Queens. For the next half hour, Kitty’s deafening screams of, “I’ve been stabbed! Please help me!” pierced the air around her apartment complex. The attacker, Winston Moseley, was startled by signs of activity in nearby apartments and fled the scene twice before he finally killed Kitty during his third attack. He would later confess that, “It didn’t seem like anyone was going to stop me!” Moseley was right; of the 38 witnesses that were aware of the murder as it progressed, not a single one called the police until Kitty was already dead.
After the New York Times published an article revealing the apathetic behavior of the 38 witnesses, moral outrage erupted in the city. Life magazine wondered if people were becoming callous and immoral. Newspapers blamed the bystanders for the murder, threatening to print their names and addresses. People refused to believe that the witnesses were not abnormal barbarians.
In response to this hysteria, two Columbia University researches, John Darley and Bibb Latane, delved further into the idea of bystander apathy, or “not helping.” In a 1973 experiment, recruited participants had to walk from one building to another, where they would give a lecture. In some scenarios, these students were told that they were in a hurry or that they had a few minutes to spare. The experimenters positioned a moaning man along the students’ path. The amount of students who helped along their way was highest in the low hurry situations (63%) and lowest in high hurry (10%). Ironically, students who believed that they were about to give a talk on being a Good Samaritan went as far as to step over the injured man. Darley and Latane concluded that ethics might simple become a luxury as our lives become more hectic.
Further studies reveal that the explanation for bystander apathy may have less to do with human callousness and more to do with a tendency to take social cues from those around us. In a 1969 experiment by Darley and Daniel Batson, subjects were placed in a room to fill out questionnaires. The room slowly filled with smoke. There were three conditions: one in which the subject was alone, one in which three naïve subjects were in the room, and one in which one naïve subject was placed with two confederates who noticed and ignored the smoke. The alone subjects calmly reported the smoke 75% of the time. In the confederate and naïve bystander conditions, only 10% and 38% of subjects reported the smoke, respectively. In some of the confederate instances, the smoke grew so thick that the subject look concerned, got up, and checked the vent. However, upon seeing the how calm the confederates remained, they went back to their forms.
More recent studies have demonstrated the effect of social priming on degree of generosity. In 2002 study titled “Crowded minds: The implicit bystander effect,” researchers discovered that subjects in a group consistently pledged less money to a charity than those with one other person. It was easier for the grouped people to give less money because chances were the entire group would follow suit; when only one other person is involved, mob mentality does not exist.
Psychotherapist Mark Tyrrell describes a situation in which he witnessed a boy having an epileptic fit at school. Though the boy was writhing and foaming, Tyrrell and every other classmate failed to get help. Bystander apathy is prevalent in children. Thornberg (2007) observed that children often run by others who have fallen down during a game, watch as other children harass a mentally handicapped student, or passively witness fights break out. Children experience what researchers refer to as a diffusion of responsibility; because no other student takes the initiative to be the first helper, chances of the other students helping are reduced. Children also tend to place a lot of importance on social roles. When interviewers asked children why they did not help others, many said that the teacher is supposed to help.
Scientific studies have shown that group size often reduces an individual’s propensity to act. Just as in the case with the smoke, individuals will often take cues from those around them rather than apply their own logic to the situation. When someone is alone, such as in one condition of the smoke case, they are more likely to act because doing so does not involve “breaking rank.” The people who watched Kitty Genovese die were not monsters; they simply told themselves that “Someone else must be dealing with this!”
Darley, J. M., & Batson, C.D. (1973) “From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior. JPSP, 27, 100-108.
Garcia, Stephen M.; Weaver, Kim; Moskowitz, Gordon B.; Darley, John M. (2002) Crowded minds: The implicit bystander effect, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 843-853
Latane, B., & Darley, J. (1969) Bystander “Apathy”, American Scientist, 57, 244-268.
Martin, Douglas (1989, March 11). About New York; Kitty Genovese: Would New York Still Turn Away? [Electronic Version]. The New York Times. Retrieved February 24, 2009 from <http://www.nytimes.com/1989/03/11/nyregion/about-new-york-kitty-genovese-would-new-york-still-turn-away.html>
Thornberg, Robert (2007) A classmate in distress: schoolchildren as bystanders and their reasons for how they act, Social Psychology of Education, 10, 5-28.
Tryyell, Mark. Bystander apathy – it’s none of my business! [Web Page] Uncommon Knowledge. Retrieved February 24, 2009 from <http://www.uncommon-knowledge.co.uk/articles/bystander-apathy.html>.