A few years ago, I was assaulted on a busy street in London by a man who came up behind me. Some details of the assault are hazy, others pin-sharp. I recall exactly what my attacker did, and that the assault was witnessed by rush-hour drivers sitting at a red light. If there were pedestrians nearby, I do not remember them, though the situation suggests that there were people at hand. I do remember that no one came to my aid.
On the face of it, this looks like a textbook case of bystander apathy – the failure of onlookers to intervene in troubling, violent or even murderous events when others are present. The effect was first described in 1968 by the social psychologists Bibb Latané at Columbia University in New York and John Darley at New York University. Their research was prompted by the murder of Kitty Genovese outside her home in Queens in 1964. In The New York Times’s report of the killing, which was rehashed by news media across the world, only one of 38 witnesses was said to have done anything to intervene.
Latané and Darley’s research suggested that the greater the number of onlookers the less likely anyone was to step in, especially if others around them appeared calm or unconcerned. Whereas lone bystanders stepped forward to help a victim 85 per cent of the time, only 31 per cent of witnesses intervened when they were part of a group of five. Latané and Darley labelled this phenomenon ‘diffusion of responsibility’, which along with ‘evaluation apprehension’ (concern about how any intervention might be interpreted) and ‘pluralistic ignorance’ (if everyone else seems calm, there’s nothing to worry about) make up what has become known as the bystander effect or bystander apathy.
In the half-century since it was first described, the bystander effect has been widely studied and elaborated upon, but never fundamentally challenged. [Continue reading…]