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Bystander apathy - it's none of my business!

Have you ever heard about an example of bystander apathy and wondered if you would have done something? Or perhaps you're sure you would. A little psychological knowledge can put you less at risk of bystander apathy if you yourself are in trouble, and help you combat it in yourself.

In the Monty Python film 'Life of Brian', Brian the reluctant messiah shouts exasperatedly down to his throngs of followers: "You must think for yourselves!" To which they all slavishly respond (in unison!), "We must think for ourselves!" He then shouts out, "You are all individuals!" And again the masses collectively and robotically echo his words: "We are all individuals!" A tiny voice pipes up from the crowd: "I'm not!"

Absurd as this may seem, it neatly matches what psychologists have discovered about much human (group) nature. We like to think of ourselves as 'individuals', but a surprising amount of what we do and think is really prompted by group-action and group-think.

Standing by and doing nothing

When I was thirteen I saw a boy having an epileptic fit at school. He writhed and rolled around on the floor, and I just watched. I wanted to help, but no one else was helping, so I didn't either. Eventually he came out of the fit and a teacher arrived. I had experienced 'bystander apathy' first hand, and I'm not proud of it. The concept of bystander apathy - which refers to witnesses of a problematic event who do nothing when they could or should - has grisly and horrific origins.

Why Catherine Genovese died

On Friday 13 March in 1964, 28-year-old Catherine Genovese was arriving home in her built-up neighbourhood from a late night shift as a bar manager in Queens, New York. She was suddenly attacked with a knife by a man named Winston Moseley. She screamed aloud “Oh my God, I've been stabbed! Please help me!” We know what she screamed because people heard her. People who didn't lift a finger to help. People who didn't want to 'get involved', who didn't call the police.

Moseley saw lights come on in the apartments nearby. He knew people were watching. He ran off, leaving Catherine to drag herself into a doorway where she lay bleeding - she could possibly have survived at this point. But her attacker decided to return to finish off what he'd started because, as he later said in court: "It didn't seem like anyone was going to stop me!" Although badly weakened by now, she again screamed for help. Of 38 witnesses who heard or saw some part of the attack (which took place over about half an hour in total), not one took action to help her. By the time the police were eventually called, she was dead.

Why did no one take action? Were they bad people? Or was it the nature of the situation - the context - that made them seem inhuman? It's not that they didn't care about what was happening, it's that they didn't act. No one picked up the phone to call for rescue for this woman.

Moral outrage at bystander apathy

The tragedy wasn't given that much coverage at first. But when the New York Times ran a piece on the astonishingly apathetic behaviour of the 38 witnesses, moral outrage ensued. Newspapers threatened to print the names and addresses of the witnesses, to 'name and shame' them. These could not be normal people, they must be inhuman! Barbarians, thugs and criminals. Readers wrote in saying these vicious bystanders killed this woman just as surely as Moseley did, and should be punished for their 'crime' of not helping when they had the power.

Understanding why bystander apathy occurs

When something like this happens, it's more comfortable to assume that only 'other people' behave like this (I'm not talking about the murder - I mean the bystander apathy). Yet research which has been undertaken since this horrific crime has shown that the behaviour of these 38 witnesses is actually quite normal in the context in which they found themselves.

During the publicity and mass denouncement of the witnesses, two young experimental psychology researchers, John Darley and Bibb Latane of Columbia University, wanted to discover if 'not helping' - bystander apathy - was something that people commonly did, and if so, why? They wanted to understand, and not just condemn, people who were nearby, who saw some of the attack, or heard the cries for help, but who did nothing to help during the 35 minutes it took for a young woman to be raped and murdered on their doorstep. Their hypothesis was that people's decision not to act was dictated more by the social context than by the moral standards of the witnesses.

Using other peoples' points of view

In thinking about the inaction of the witnesses, Darley and Bitane thought they saw a common pattern of everyday life. For instance, if a fire alarm goes off in a building and no one else seems concerned, most people will continue to do nothing - because other people are doing nothing. Or in the street, if someone falls over and no one helps, you might not help either - because other people aren't helping. Our two researchers decided to put this to the test. Obviously, they couldn't replicate a murder, so they decided to replicate a seizure.

The bystander apathy experiment

Concealing their real objective, they recruited a group of student volunteers and told them they were to take part in a study about adapting to student life at the university. A student was to sit alone in a separate room and talk into a microphone for two minutes about their experiences of university life. In a series of separate audio-wired rooms were tape recorders which would play other students' stories. However, the 'subject' was unaware that these accounts were pre-recorded, and thought that the voices they could hear were other students participating in the study.

The instructions were clear. The subject was to wait their turn while each pre-recorded voice carried on about their trials, troubles and challenges of college life. When the live subject's turn came, he or she could speak for two minutes. When it was not the subject's turn, their microphone was switched off, and they would just listen to what they believed to be a live person in another room.

The fist voice to speak was a pre-recorded account from a supposedly 'epileptic' student. He confessed to the rest of the 'group' (remember there was only one actual student present) that he (or in some experiments she) was prone to seizures which could be life threatening, and might be stress induced. He said exams were tough for him, and that New York was tough to live in; he spoke with halting embarrassment about his 'condition'. He said he found college life tough. His voice then muted, and another pre-recorded voice spoke, as the real live student listened to what they believed were other live students speaking in real time. This carried on - 'student' after 'student' speaking for two minutes at a time - until something happened. A seizure started. The real student subject could not, of course, see the seizure, as they were in a separate room by themselves, but they could hear it. The epileptic actor's voice became staccato, and got louder, more panicky and insistent: "I'm... I'm having a fit... I... I think I'm... help me... I... I can't... Oh my God... err... if someone can just help me out here... I... I... can't breathe p-p-properly... I'm feeling... I'm going to d-d-die if…" Then there was a final choke, then silence. The 'seizure' lasted a full six minutes.

Now the one live listener - who of course would have been thinking that there were at least one, two, or up to five other listeners who could also hear what was going on - could at any point get up, leave the room, go down the hall and ask the experimenter for help.

Darley and Latane had been careful to construct the experiment to mimic the circumstances of the Genovese murder. During the protracted assault, witnesses could see other witnesses but not communicate with them - separated as they were by panes of glass. In the experiment, the students thought they couldn't communicate with other students in other rooms (because their microphone would be off if it wasn't their turn). The students had time to reflect on what they should do - six minutes. The results? Very few tried to help - 31%, to be exact. Which means that most people didn't help, even though they believed someone might be dying. They were anxious, but they didn't act. The researchers found that if the subjects believed they were in a group of four or more students they were actually far less likely to go for help. If, however, they believed it was just them and the epileptic student and no one else, then 85% of the subjects would seek help. The bigger the group, the less likely the individual is to act. If they were to act, they would do so in the first three minutes of the crisis. If you don't act in the first three minutes of an emergency, you are very unlikely to act at all!

There's danger in numbers

This research has been replicated among other sectors of the population (i.e. people who are not students) and the helping rates remain constant. There is something about being in (or believing ourselves to be in, as with this experiment) a larger group that stops us acting as individuals. Statistically, it's safer for you to collapse in front of one or two people than in a crowd of onlookers. There is not always 'safety in numbers'.

When the students thought another student was having a fit, they became scared, upset and anxious. None of them were just apathetic, or indifferent (as the morally outraged newspaper readers assumed that the witnesses of the 1964 murder had been), but most of them still didn't help. The witnesses to murder on that terrible night were probably frozen with indecision and fear - "Someone else must be dealing with this!" (our researchers called this 'diffusion of responsibility'), " don't want to appear foolish - it might just be a domestic!", etc.

I don't want to get involved

You are involved if you are there. So am I, if I am there. If we are watching TV, we are not involved. If we are watching events unfold before us, how can we not be? Even at the 'risk' of looking foolish. But it seems that most of us would rather risk death than risk going against the majority.

Social affirmation wins over self-preservation

Darley and Latane conducted further research. They wanted to see if we would still be influenced into inaction by group-think if the person 'in need' was 'us' instead of 'someone else'. They constructed an office with an air vent. In this office sat one student (again ignorant of the real object of the study) and two actors. They were to sit together filling in psychological questionnaires. Several minutes into the experiment, the researchers released non-hazardous but convincing-looking smoke into the room via the air vent.

The actors were under instruction to ignore the smoke and keep filling in their questionnaires. The smoke made them all cough, and got so thick it was hard to see. Still the two actors just went on calmly filling out their forms. The real subjects looked concerned, and a few actually got up and went to the vent, then looked back at their calm fellow questionnaire-fillers and then went back to their own forms! Because they were in a minority of one, they ignored their own logic and instincts. Some ventured to ask the other two whether this was strange, but the actors just shrugged such questions off. In the whole experiment, only one student actually left the room and reported the smoke.

The subjects based their action, or inaction, on the social cues of those around them rather than on the evidence before them. They had smoke in their eyes, a fine white film in their hair and on their lips, they were coughing and spluttering, but still continued doing nothing about it (because the others were doing nothing) until the experimenter arrived and stopped the experiment. It seems people would rather risk their lives than go against the grain and 'break rank'.

In contrast, when the subject was alone in a smoke-filled room, they nearly always decided the situation was an emergency and went to raise the alarm. So when we have to take responsibility because no one else is there, we do, but when other people are present many of us look to others to signal to us what we should do.

This may depressing at first sight, but remember that there is a minority of people who will try to act, regardless of the group consensus. Thank goodness for those people - if it weren't for them, we'd all behave like robots!

You may already be less at risk of bystander apathy

It seems that knowing about the phenomenon of bystander apathy may protect you from actually becoming that apathetic bystander.

Social scientist Arthur Beaman discovered that when he educated people about social cues and bystander apathy they were more ready to take action. He took a group of college students and showed them footage of the smoke experiment I've just described. He also spoke to them about the seizure research in relation to Genovese murder case. He found that after exposure to this information the students were twice as likely to offer help 'in the street' as compared with people who had not been educated about this.

So, we can conclude from this that we need to learn about ourselves, and not assume that the behaviour of others is not our own. Choosing to think well of ourselves isn't the same as really understanding ourselves. 'The road to hell is paved with good intentions', but intention without action - as poor Catherine Genovese learned to her cost that horrible Friday 13th back in 1964 - is worse than useless.

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