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Bystander Effect

What a sharp contrast with a scene that occurred on a New York street nearly two decades before. Kitty Genovese was slowly and brutally stabbed to death. At least thirty-eight of her neighbors witnessed the attack and heard her screams. In the course of the 90-minute episode, her attacker was actually frightened away, then he returned to finish her off. Yet not once during that period did any neighbor assist her, or even telephone the police.

The implications of this tragic event shocked America, and it stimulated two young psychologists, Darly and Latane, to study the conditions under which people are or are not willing to help others in an emergency. In essence, they concluded that responsibility is diffused.

The more people present in an emergency situation, the less likely it is that any one of them will offer help. This is popularly called the “bystander effect.”

In the actual experiment, when one bystander was present, 85 percent offered help. When two were present, 62 percent offered help. When five were present, then it decreased to 31 percent.

Lawrence S. Wrightsman, Social Psychology in the Seventies (Monterey, Calif.: Brooks/Coal Publishing Company, 1972), pp. 33-34. quoted in Courage: You Can Stand Strong in the Face of Fear, Jon Johnston, 1990, SP Publications, p. 37