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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Bystander Apathy

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Bystander apathy ­ it's none of my business!
Mark Tyrrell
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
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
Bystander apathy ­ none of my business


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
Bystander apathy ­ none of my business


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'), "I 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
Bystander apathy ­ none of my business


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
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 al 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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