In social psychology, the Bystander Effect is the name given to the 'law' that the likelihood of social helping behaviour in humans decreases as the number of bystanders or onlookers increases. In social situations, people tend on the whole not to get involved unless they see someone else getting involved, which leads to a group of people, for example, witnessing a mugging and wondering why no one else is helping, whereas any of those people would be much more likely to help if they were witnessing the attack on their own. A corollary to this observation is that one's sense of individual responsibility for a situation decreases in the presence of others. People find it easier to melt into a crowd, both outwardly, and inwardly (in terms of the excuses made to oneself for not acting - "I couldn't have done anything", "It's none of my business").
This effect can be countered by the person in trouble, or by a person who has had special training for emergency situations (for example, a doctor at the site of an accident). Essentially, by singling people out and asking them, as individuals, to help, the same social forces that prevented them from intervening in the first place will now coerce them to action: "You, with the mobile phone - call the police!" People find it almost impossible to resist a direct request or order like this in a social situation. Once one person has become involved, the rest will find it easier to follow.
Illustration and Rumination
I heard shouting from my apartment window one night last year, and looked out to see a young guy
being chased up the road by two others. He backed into a corner, screaming at them to fuck
off, and they tried to get in close. One of them kicked him in the stomach, and it looked
like it hurt. He ran again, up the road towards the cinema, and they ran after him. I
watched them go out of sight, and then I heard a girl screaming "help..." and
more shouting...it was coming from around the corner and I was straining to try and see, I
opened the window, heard her still crying, and then I realized I was mesmerized, as if it
were all happening on some kind of TV screen. I was wondering why no one was helping, and then I saw myself, nose to the glass, like a voyeur at a neighbour's window. I was frozen. I felt completely horrified at myself, and I put on my socks and shoes as
quickly as I could, nearly grabbed a knife and thought better of it, grabbed a tin opener
instead...yes, I know...and ran out, nearly forgetting my keys, that would have been
By the time I got to where the shouting was coming from, no one was there. The guys
were gone. There was a girl being walked up the road towards the police station with blood
in her hair. A policewoman was walking down the road with a radio. I wandered up the road but there was
no sign of the three guys, so I went back inside.
I read a psychological study once about the Bystander Effect, using as an example an incident in a
US city where a woman called Kitty Genovese was murdered in the forecourt of an apartment block, in full view and
full light. She was screaming for someone to help her all the time, but no one came to
help. When the police investigated, they discovered that many of the residents had opened their windows and were looking out,
watching it happen. The murder took 35 minutes, during which the killer left twice and returned to continue attacking the woman. If there were residents who opened their windows and saw Kitty being attacked, there were even more who heard the screams but didn't even call the police. I always thought that kind of thing didn't apply to me, but it
looks like it does. The bystander effect. That's a really nice and scientific word to
describe cowardice and apathy.
I often hear screams and loud noises from my apartment. Most of the time it's drunk
people wandering out of the late pubs and clubs, play-fighting, laughing, kicking over
dustbins, walking over cars, singing "Wake up!!" to the apartments above.
Sometimes it's a girl and a guy having a fight, or breaking up, or trying to make up. Sometimes it's a hobo in some vague rage.
And sometimes it's someone in trouble, in the wrong place to look for help.
In the city
centre no one feels at home so no one will run out to stop a fight, as you would if it was
your house in the suburbs, your little kingdom, your seat of power. No one really lives
here, we just inhabit the dwellings, and we are not friends. My neighbours and I didn't
talk; we hardly even greeted each other in the lifts. The only person I even smiled at while I lived there was the
Spanish guy who lived next door, who ws very friendly and probably wondered what everyone's problem is. He came
in one night asking to use the phone to call Spain, because his phone wasn't working. He
offered to pay me and I refused.
I've run out like that before, living in other places - you'd be surprised how often
you hear screaming if you're up late at night in a city. Sometimes I run out straight away, other times it takes me a while to realize there's something wrong. People scream at
each other in their houses, walking down the street. Sometimes it's a fox, making that
horrible rasping baby-shriek that sounds like nothing more than someone dying in
agony. It takes a while before you realize that a certain kind of scream only comes from
someone in big trouble. Depending on how scared you are of getting hurt, you respond in
whatever way you can. Maybe mostly you do nothing, and just wonder for a while what
happened, then let yourself forget.
Imagine how much safer it would be if, when that kind of scream was heard, we all ran
from our houses to help? One person running after a couple of fuckers with knives or a gun
is possibly foolhardy. But if ten people would come running any time something happened,
pretty soon it just wouldn't happen any more. It would never be a good idea to mug someone
in the street, because more than likely you'd get the shit kicked out of you, unless you
were willing to kill someone. And maybe even then you could be killed yourself.
If I'd gone out tonight and found a girl dead in a doorway with a bottle in her head,
I'd wonder for a long time if anything might have been different if I hadn't frozen, if
I'd run out sooner. Guilt is bullshit, and I wouldn't torture myself. But I'd wonder.
Maybe I'd realize that I don't live in a void, a little cocoon in the city where no one
touches me. Maybe I'd realize that I make a difference, and that if I was being attacked,
screaming for help, I'd be terrified and astonished if no one moved to help me, if they
all stayed in their houses watching, afraid to be hurt by the bad people. Why are we
afraid to help each other? As if there was some difference between us, as if it's all
right for the other to die but not us, as if we matter more than them, as if we are more
worth preserving, more valuable, more relevant to the drama of the world than they are. As
if we have no obligation to help someone just because we are not personally putting the
boot into their ribs.
Maybe this is the story of every murder, or war, or abuse. Or maybe I'm wrong, and all
we are able to do is live as if we are alone. I'll die wrong and not be sorry, and hope
for a better place.
Thanks to arrogantsob for correcting my factual errors about the Kitty Genovese incident
References for the Bystander Effect: