If a man were dying on the street, would you help him? Source: AdSavvy

If a man were dying on the street, would you help him? Source: AdSavvy

If a man were dying on the street, would you help him or just walk by? Most of us would like to think we would help, but unfortunately this is not usually the case. According to a social psychological phenomenon known as the bystander effect, people do not intervene in emergencies because of a diffusion of responsibility. In fact, likelihood of help is inversely proportional to the number of bystanders (1). Knowing that others have seen an emergency leads us to believe that someone will provide assistance, resulting in the diminished responsibility we assume in an emergency situation.

The 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese brought the bystander effect to the news. Near her apartment in Queens, Genovese was sexually assaulted, beaten, and stabbed. As she screamed for help, windows opened and several lights turned on, yet no one called the police. Genovese died in the street, and the American public was shocked by the inaction of the numerous witnesses to the crime. Social psychologists responded to the tragedy by attempting to explain the  seeming indifference on the part of the bystanders to the plight of the victim.

John Darley and Bibb Latané, inspired by the Genovese case, decided to study audience constraints on helping others (2). In their study, college students were asked to participate in a discussion regarding life in an urban environment. The conversation was conducted over an intercom system, and participants took turns speaking while sitting in separate cubicles. Early in the discussion, a confederate described his problems relating to stress-related seizures. Later in the discussion, the confederate staged a seizure to test how many participants would leave their cubicle to provide assistance.

Darley and Latané’s results showed a strong relationship between the number of people witnessing an emergency and the likelihood of an individual to take action. There were three experimental groups: participants led to believe they were the only participant, among two participants, or among five participants with the victim. In the two-person condition, 81 percent responded with help, in the three-person condition, 62 percent, and in the six-person condition, 31 percent (2). The study indicates that the presence of other people leads to a diffusion of responsibility in an emergency and strongly inhibits helping behavior.

How can we reduce this effect of bystander effect? Researchers suggest that the key to getting help is combatting the diffusion of responsibility (3). Two methods can help to highly increase the chances of a bystander providing help in an emergency situation. The first is for the victim to direct his dialogue to a specific member of a crowd of people. Calling one person out helps to decrease the diffusion of responsibility. The second is for the victim to choose a person who is as similar to them as possible, in terms of gender, class and attire. People are more likely to help a person that they can identify as a member of a group to which they belong. (4).


  1. B. Latané, S. Nida, Psychol. Bull. 24, 308-324 (1981).
  2. J. M. Darley, B. Latané, J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 8. 377-383 (1968).
  3. T. Gilovich, D. Keltner, S. Chen, R. E. Nisbett, Social Psychology (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, ed. 3, 2013), pp. 539.
  4. J. F. Dovidio, S. L. Gaertner, Soc. Psychol. Quart. 44, 192-203 (1981).