The case of Kitty Genovese who was murdered in New York in 1964 in full view of 39 witnesses who did nothing to help, triggered a series of seminal research papers by John Darley and Bibb Latane on what was dubbed the ‘bystander phenomenon’ – the apathy typically shown by people when they then assume someone else will take responsibility for a situation.
Now Peter Fischer and colleagues have revisited the phenomenon and come to the more heartening conclusion that people are likely to help if they perceive that someone is in serious danger.
Fischer’s team recruited 86 participants who were led to believe they were taking part in an experiment in which they had to observe the way men and women flirt with each other. The participants thought they were watching a live video feed from an adjacent room in which male and female strangers were meeting each other, but really they were watching pre-prepared video clips.
The first two clips each featured a different man and a woman meeting for the first time and passed uneventfully. However, during the third clip, which featured a third couple played by professional actors, the man grew increasingly aggressive towards the woman, until by the end of the clip he was being violent and abusive towards her.
Crucially, some participants watched a clip that featured a huge brute of a man (high danger condition), while other participants were shown a clip that featured a scrawny, skinny man (low danger condition). Also, half the participants were sat on their own, while the other half were accompanied by what they thought was another participant but was really an assistant to the researchers. When the man in the clip started getting aggressive, this other ‘participant’ just shrugged and said (s)he didn’t want to get involved.
When it was a little skinny man who started getting violent, the bystander effect seemed to occur: 50 per cent of participants who were sat alone went off to help the woman, compared with just 6 per cent when another ‘participant’ was sat with them. However, when the violent man was a large brute, the bystander effect virtually disappeared: 44 per cent went to help when they were on their own, compared with 40 per cent in the company of another ‘participant’.
Lead researcher Dr. Peter Fischer said “The good news is that when people are in real trouble, they have a good chance of receiving help, even when another bystander is present”.
Fischer, P., Greitemeyer, T., Pollozek, F. & Frey, D. (2005). Unresponsive bystander behaviour: Are bystanders more responsive in dangerous emergencies? European Journal of Social Psychology. In Press, DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.297.