On March 16, 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was attacked by a serial rapist and murderer while walking back to her apartment in New York. Genovese screamed and pleaded for help for over half an hour as the assailant stabbed and raped her, eventually killing her and fleeing. Though neighbors overheard the majority of the attack, the New York Times reported that none interfered or called the police until after it was over. Four years later, social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané set out to discover why.
We all like to think of ourselves as good people. But what percentage of us would actually help a person in distress? Darley and Latané placed each subject with a group of confederates (actors) then staged an emergency situation. These involved injuries, health threats, or personal misfortune. The team then measured how long it took the subject to intervene. The data immediately revealed a pattern: the larger the group, the longer the subjects waited to act. In fact, many did not intervene at all: one setup found that subjects who were alone responded to a woman in distress 70 percent of the time while those in a group reacted just 40 percent of the time.
Darley and Bibb had uncovered bystander effect, one of the most replicated phenomena in social psychology. In the presence of a group, individuals are less likely to help a person in need. Like Asch’s famous conformity experiments, the bystander effect shows how individual behavior changes in numbers. Many tests have measured how different variables affect subjects’ responses, the most notable of which is group cohesion. In the video above, researchers set out to see if a person’s appearance influences behavior. Three actors feign medical emergencies on the streets of England, either pleading for help or lying unconscious. One actor wears rags, while the others dress nicely to fit in with the crowd. Though not a single person checks on the “outsider’s” wellbeing, the same people who walked past him rush to the suited man within seconds.
These experiments paint a disconcerting portrait of human compassion. Empathy seems to be tied to a herd mentality. We look after for members of our group while ignoring those who do not belong. Even when faced with cries for help, we look the other way, unmoved or simply oblivious to the suffering around us. Perhaps this was part of the case with Kitty Genovese—neighbors sat unworried by a strange woman’s plight.
Does this mean people are unfeeling monsters? Not quite. Our altruism has evolved to be selective, to support some victims while sidestepping others. I think that like the Asch conformity experiments, the bystander effect serves as a chilling example of group dynamics. We all like to imagine ourselves as compassionate, independent thinkers, but social psychology affects our actions far more than we understand. Also, note that while the veracity of the Kitty Genovese story has been heavily questioned over the years (the New York Times has been accused of sensationalized, inaccurate reporting), it nonetheless remains a common introduction to group dynamics and the bystander effect, which have been replicated countless times.
So what do you think? Are people indifferent to suffering? Or are our minds more complex than we like to believe? (I’d say both.) Share your thoughts in the comments section below. As always, please like, share, or reblog this post if you enjoy it. That small click really helps me out! Be sure to check me out on Twitter and Facebook as well. Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to subscribe for new content every Wednesday! IT’S FREE!
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Comment question of the week
Have you seen the bystander effect in action? How did people react to the victim’s misfortune?