The Bystander Apathy Effect

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Murder of Kitty Genovese

Early in the morning on March 13, 1964, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was sexually assaulted and stabbed to death outside of her apartment building in the Kew Gardens district of Queens, New York (Manning 2007)[1]. This brutal sexual assault and murder would not have been particularly notable except for the fact that thirty-eight of her neighbors watched the attack from their windows or heard her screams for help but did nothing to intervene during the thirty-five minutes that Genovese was being attacked (Manning 2007). In fact, twice the killer, frightened by the lights in the neighbor’s windows, left Genovese but after realizing that no one was going to intervene, came back and resumed attacking her (Manning 2007). Following the disclosure of these facts by the authorities, a variety of sources, including ministers, professors, and news commentators, provided explanations for the apparent apathy of the neighbors ranging from the “dehumanization produced by the urban environment” to “existential despair” (Darley and Latane 1968). Many people, shocked that no one called the police or made any move to help Genovese, tended to attribute the seeming indifference of her neighbors to factors that were personalistic in nature [2]. However, two social psychologists, John Darley and Bibb Latane, decided to look into alternative explanations of such bystander inaction by focusing on the situation, specifically the social forces that might influence a crowd to become inactive witnesses (Darley and Latane 1968). Their studies led to what they termed as the bystander effect, also called the bystander apathy effect, the phenomenon that people are less likely to intervene or offer help in emergency situations when they are in the presence of others than when they are alone (Darley and Latane 1968)[3].

Darley and Latane Early Studies

Darley and Latane analyzed the psychological processes involved in the bystander effect to create a model suggesting the factors that result in bystander intervention or inaction [4]. One factor that may weaken the likelihood of bystander intervention is the presence of others (Darley and Latane 1968)[5]. They hypothesized that the presence of others leads to the responsibility of helping being diffused among the onlookers in what they called “diffusion of responsibility” along with a diffusion of the blame, since people do not think they will be blamed individually in a large group (Darley and Latane 1968). Their hypothesis was that in an emergency, when an individual knows that others are around but cannot view their behavior, they tend to assume that someone else must be intervening and that their own intervention would thus fail to be helpful, and could perhaps even be harmful (Darley and Latane 1968). To test this hypothesis, Darley and Latane 1968 conducted an experiment where participants were told that they were going to participate in a discussion with others via the use of an intercom system to avoid any embarrassment regarding answers to the questions (Darley and Latane 1968). During the discussion, one of the other subjects suffered from what seemed to be a very bad seizure or choking fit (Darley and Latane 1968). The independent variable was the number of people the true participant believed to be in the discussion group, and the dependent variable was the time it took the participant to report the emergency (Darley and Latane 1968). The results showed that as the number of people believed to be in the experiment increased, participants took significantly longer amounts of time to report the emergency, if they reported it at all (Darley and Latane 1968). Darley and Latane then analyzed what they termed as the situation effect, the idea that because emergencies tend to be initially ambiguous, people look at the reactions of others to determine how they should react (Darley and Latane 1968). If no one else reacts, people assume that it must not be an emergency and remain inactive as well (Darley and Latane 1968). Latane and Darley tested this hypothesis experimentally with the “smoke-filled room study,” where the participant was placed in a waiting room either alone, with two real participants, or with two confederates (Latane and Darley 1968). [6]. Smoke would gradually begin to fill the room where the participant was sitting (Latane and Darley 1968). The independent variable was the participant was either in the presence of confederates, who remained passive in spite of the increasingly smoke-filled room, or the participant was alone (Latane and Darley 1968). The dependent variable was how long it took the participant to report the smoke (Latane and Darley 1968). In the individual condition, the participant reported the smoke almost immediately, while in the confederate condition only 10% of participants reported the smoke at all, even when it was so thick that they could not see their hand in front of their faces (Latane and Darley 1968). This phenomenon is called pluralistic ignorance, the collective misinterpretation of a situation as result of everyone looking to those around them to determine how to behave (Latane and Darley 1968). This includes the audience inhibition effect, the idea that people have a fear of being viewed as inadequate or confused, and as a result do not want to risk standing out, even by intervening in an emergency situation, for fear of overreacting and being embarrassed in front of others (Darley and Latane 1968). Diffusion of responsibility, pluralistic ignorance, and the audience inhibition effect together form Latane and Darley’s bystander effect, forming a major subset of the social psychological study of prosocial behavior.

Other Contributions to Bystander Apathy Research

In the early 1980s Darley and Latane’s conclusions were expanded into a second theory of bystander intervention called the arousal cost-reward model (Pilivian, Dovidio, Gaertner, and Clark 1981)[7]. This model suggests that bystanders intervene most when they perceive the personal costs of helping to be low and the costs of not helping are perceived as being high (Pilivian, et. al) . Other social psychologists have expanded these conclusions to explain other social phenomena. In 1994, social psychologists Christy and Voigt sought a better understanding of the lack of bystander intervention in episodes of public child abuse [8]. They surveyed 269 witnesses who stated that they had seen instances of child abuse (Christy & Voigt 1994). While around half of the participants in the survey stated that these instances occurred in public, only one out of four witnesses acted to intervene. This research led to the conclusion that bystander intervention in situations like child abuse is most likely to occur when the bystander is able to mentally produce a number of feasible solutions or strategies to end the perceived conflict (Christy & Voigt 1994). Additionally, Christy and Voigt found that bystanders are more likely to intervene when they have a relationship with the victim or can identify with the victim in some way. As more studies are made that examine what specifically increases the likelihood of bystander intervention, social psychologists have began making suggestions on how to expand the bystander effect to improve rape prevention education programs (Banyard, Plante, & Moynihan 2004) and to analyze the existence of the bystander effect in children by studying bullying (Rigby & Johnson 2005)[9].

Consequences of Bystander Intervention

Studies consistently show that the result of bystander intervention is the reduced likelihood of violent attempts being successful, the reduction of overall violence, and increased intervention by others in conflict situations (Christy & Voigt 1994, Rigby & Johnson 2005). For these reasons, anti-bystander apathy education programs have been implemented by a number of different institutions to increase helping behavior, especially in situations of sexual violence or violence against children [10].


  1. Manning, Rachel, and Levine, Mark and Alan Collins. "The Kitty Genovese Murder and the Social Psychology of Helping." American Psychologist 62 (2007): 555-62. 17 Sept. 2007. PsycINFO. 17 Nov. 2008 <
  2. Darley, John M. "Bystander Phenomenon." Encyclopedia of Psychology. Vol. 1. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2000. 493-95. 01 Jan. 2004. PsycINFO. 15 Nov. 2008 <>.
  3. Baumeister, Roy F., and Brad J. Bushman. Social Psychology and Human Nature. Belmont, CA: Thomas Wadsworth, 2008. 254-80.
  4. Penner, Louis A., John F. Dovidio, Jane A. Piliavin, and David A. Shroeder. "Prosocial Behavior: Multilevel Perspectives." Annual Review of Psychology 56 (2005): 365-92. 02 May 2005. PsycINFO. 17 Nov. 2008 <>.
  5. Darley, John M., and Bibb Latane. "Bystander Intervention in Emergencies: Diffusion of Responsibility." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 8 (1968): 377-83. Apr. 1968. PsycINFO. 15 Nov. 2008 <>.
  6. Latane, Bibb, and John M. Darley. "Group Inhibition of Bystander Intervention in Emergencies." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 10 (1968): 215-21. Nov. 1968. PsycINFO. 17 Nov. 2008 <>.
  7. Banyard, Victoria L., Elizabethe G. Plante, and Mary M. Moynihan. "Bystander Education: Bringing a Broader Community Perspective to Sexual Violence Prevention." Journal of Community Psychology 32 (2004): 61-79.
  8. Christy, Cathryn A., and Harrison Voigt. "Bystander Responses to Public Episodes of Child Abuse." Journal of Applied Social Psychology 24 (1994): 824-47.
  9. Rigby, Ken, and Bruce Johnson. "Introduction to the International Bystander Project." The Journal for Pastoral Care and Personal-Social Education 23 (2005): 6-9.
  10. Keltner, Ph.D, Dacher, and Jason Marsh. "We Are All Bystanders." Greater Good Fall 06-07: 6-9. Greater Good Magazine. Fall 2006-2007. <>.

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