July 30, 2007

Altruism and the Bystander Effect

Author_brad By Bradley Wright

Suppose that you’re at the local convenience store buying the usual—chips, soda, and, if it’s a good day, some Ben & Jerry’s, and there, in the middle of the aisle, is a body. Someone is lying unconscious, bleeding profusely.

What would you do?

According to social psychologists, there’s a good chance that you would simply step over the person and go on your way.

Don’t believe that anyone would do this? Well, that’s exactly what happened in Wichita, Kansas. On July 4th, LaShanda Calloway was stabbed during a robbery, and as she lay there bleeding to death, five shoppers just stepped right over her and kept on going. One of the people actually stopped to take a picture with a cell phone!

How could this happen? When this story was posted on the web, a number of readers wrote comments along the lines of “what is the world coming to?” and “people these days!” The police chief of Wichita exclaimed, “what happened to our respect for life?" But people weren’t always helpful in the past, either. 

In 1964, late at night in Queens, New York, Kitty Genovese parked her car and started to walk to her apartment when she was attacked and stabbed not once, not twice, but three times by the same assailant over a half-an-hour period. During that time she screamed for help on numerous occasions, and a total of 38 people heard her—some even watched the events outside their windows. Not a single person even called the police, let alone helped her, until it was too late and she was killed.

Social psychologists term this behavior the “bystander effect:” The more people present in an emergency situation, the less likely any given individual is to help. So, if you see someone in need, whether you help depends on if there are other people around. The more people nearby, the less likely you are to help. 

This happens for two reasons. First, having other people around in an emergency creates a diffusion of responsibility. We might assume that others will help, so we don’t need to. They may even be better qualified to help, we may presume, so we should let them intervene. Maybe they are closer to the victim or saw the victim before we did, so somehow they have more responsibility than we do.

Second, having bystanders around changes our definition of the situation. According to one of sociology’s core theoretical perspectives, symbolic interactionism, we make sense of our daily situations through our interactions with others. Especially when we’re in an ambiguous situation, we look to others to figure out how we should understand the situation and what we should do (and they’re looking to us to figure things out too). If in an emergency situation we see that nobody else is helping, we might think that we shouldn’t either. Maybe it’s not really an emergency, or maybe there is nothing that can be done. 

At this point you might be thinking that this is interesting, but it would never happen to you. Well, guess again. The bystander effect happens even when you’re aware of it. I know because it happened to me.

Two weeks ago some friends came over to go swimming. We have an in-ground pool, and two weeks ago a friend and her four-year-old daughter came over to go swimming. The girl couldn’t swim, so her mother put her in a life vest. But the life vest was too small, and it didn’t keep her head completely out of the water. After about paddling around for a while, the girl started to get tired, and, in the middle of the pool, she could no longer get her mouth above water. She couldn’t breathe and started to panic.

As this was happening, I was talking with the mother on the pool deck, and we turned to watch the girl. Now, if I had been alone, I would have just jumped in and pulled the girl out. Instead, I turned to the mother to see what she was doing. She looked calm (though I later found out that she wasn’t), and I thought maybe she was going to take care of the situation. So, we both stood there--for a very long 10 or 15 seconds before the mother jumped in. The girl was fine, though a little shaken. Afterwards I wondered why in the world I didn’t help, and then I realized what had happened: I gave responsibility to the mother, and I thought that maybe I was reading the situation wrong. Classic bystander effect.

The bystander effect also applies to bigger problems. Why have people been so slow to deal with global warming? Why have people ignored the AIDS pandemic in Africa for so long? Why do so few people care about stores selling products made in exploitive manufacturing conditions? We might think that the bigger a problem, the more likely we will be to do something about it, but, ironically, the exact opposite is true. If a problem affects many others, we’ll likely think that someone else should or will take care of it, or maybe we’ll see no one else doing anything and decide it’s not really a problem after all.

What then should we do? The next time you’re a bystander when someone needs help, don’t just stand by.


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I recently had an experience in an airport when I wondered if I should intervene. A man was video taping the counters in the terminal. As suspicious as his behavior was, I noticed nobody seemed to react. I had to think about it for a little bit before telling a gate agent. Even though it felt like the right thing to do, taking action is sometimes harder than not when there are crowds of people around in a busy airport.

This was a good blog and presents a great point. I totally agree that the more people there are the less likely anyone is to help. People tend to think that someone else will take care of the problem and they shouldn’t worry about it.

There was an incident at my school where a person was being interrogated by one person and being bullied. A crowd formed and even though i could see people were restless no-one intervened it was then when i stepeed into the middle of the circle and asked the bully to stop ..a few people then joined me and we managed to stop the perosn from being hurt

someone please call 911 we live in a kill or be killed world we all know that who is going to proctect you if you try and help them? not even the police sometimes. we are holders of our on destation. we cause a lot of harm that is brought to us but, it does not justfy the things in the world that are going on that are kicked under the rug.

First factor to lead to bystander effect, having other people around in an emergency creates a diffusion of responsibility. Second factor, having bystanders around changes our definition of the situation. According to one of sociology’s core theoretical perspectives, symbolic interactionism, we make sense of our daily situations through our interactions with others.

The bystander effect is pretty much self explanitory.. you stand by and do nothing. this article is pretty interesting. i never thought that if i saw someone in the situation above, i would just step over them, although the other day i saw a guy stuff a candy bar in his pants and there were about 4 other people that saw him and we all looked at each other then just proceeded to check out. i told the cashier when i got up there, but it was too late. i assume none of the others told becasue they all checked out before me and no one seemed to have told. i always try to do the right thing, but i could have done it sooner.

This is quite true. It seems that when more people are around that no one does anything to stop whatever might be going on. Everyone always thinks that oh someone wlse will do something. " I dont want to get involved." BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE. Everyone has heard that saying a million times, im as gulity as anyone else. But nothing will get done unless we do it.

The bystander effect is when your in a situation in which someone my need help but you dont help. This happens because of the people around at the time and because you think that someone who saw it first will help and they can handle it better then you. No I dont think this applieds to global warming because its not real. However i do think it effects the goverment and people not specking up for what they want.

I think some people freeze up at the very site of something out of the ordinary. It scares us or evens excites us and we ignore the fact that someone may be in need of yours or anybody's help. The world has gotten to the point that we don't respond to people's need anymore, we just sit and watch, and posilly wait on the next persons reactions. In most cases, that's the wrong thing to do.

I think people are scared of other people reaction. People rely on other people too much these days think on your own because any thing could happen so if u think you need to react do so because it might be you one day that needs help so you should always help others in need.

people have gotten lazy and selfish in this dog eat dog world we live in. times are hard and its very easy to slip into that "every man for himself" mind set. one thing to remember if we completly loose that inner drive to help one another then weve lost our humanity, the very thing that seperates us from the rest of the animals on this planet.

The bystander effect is when someone stands by and does nothing. I think that there is reason why that came to play and many people realize that sometimes close mouth is good.

The bystander effect is when the more people prsent in an emergency situation, the less likely any given individual is to help. The more people around it creates a diffusion of responsibility. And the more people around changes definition of situation.

the bystander effect is an intresting socialoal effect i had not thought of it before now

The bystander effect occurs when we are put in a situation such as an emergency and we don't do anything to help. We feel like it is someone else responsibility. Two factors that lead to the bystander effect are diffusion of responsibility and symbolic interactionlism. People involved with the topic global warming might have had some instances with the bystander effect because people maybe didn't have a plan or idea.

The bystander effect is when someone stands by and does nothing and acts like he doesn't see whats going on, but in some cases standing by and doing nothing is best

i really enjoyed this blog the most. The bystander effect is used in everyday life rather it is meant to or not. For example, if you see something horrible happening to a person you are more likely to walk away rather than calling for help.

The bystander effect is a scary concept. I think that some people maybe scared to help because in certain situations if you help you could get hurt as well. Like if someone is being held at gun point. Some people may think a certain situation isn't their business. Like if a couple are fighting on the street. It takes guts to get out of your element and help someone you don't know. I hope more people step up and help.

The bystander effect is when someone is in need and someone sees it yet does nothing about it. Two factors that lead to the bystander effect are symbolic interactionism and diffusion of responsibility. I think that if there were global warming that in a way the bystander effect could be applied to it but I dont think there is global warming.

to stand and be confusced about a situation is not uncommon. just to be in or near a situation that you dont understand or that u are not directly involved in makes you second guess yourself and the decision that you are about to make. yes and no w could have triedto solve the problem eariler but not knowing the long term effect until it was to late, now we just have to deal with the big picture and the affects that it will have on us now.

To watch someone get hurt or injured and not assist could come from a fear of the unknown reprecussion which if people were not so into themselves then maybe as society we can overcome this mockery of misfortune.

The bystander effect is something that happens often and nobody really notices it happening, which can be a pretty scary and terrible thing. The two reasons are diffusion of responsibility and symbolic interactionism. We either put the responsibility of taking action on someone else or we simply do what other people are doing around us, which is "standing by". I don't necessarily think that the bystander effect can be applied to global warming. Most people do not act on global warming simply because they do not care, or they feel like the major effects of it will not ever effect them personally. That is simply called selfishness.

To me, just standing around not helping is something that I just can't comprehend. How can you sit by and watch something horrible happen to someone else and not want to help? I know that this happened several times, but I still refuse to believe that someone wouldn't help another out. Most people assume that someone else is doing something to help the environment, so they don't need to do as much or help out as much. Don't just assume that someone else is doing it, take a stand and do it for yourself, and quit wondering what someone else will do.

The bystander effect happens in emergencies when the emergency has many witnesses or when many people know about it. It is sad that people are hurt and not helped everyday just because people refuse to offer a helping hand. The two reasons for this are symbolic interactionism and a difussion of responsibility. I do not believe that the bystander effect contributes to global warming because I do not believe in global warming. We just had one of the coldest winters in years, and things like that do not support global warming in my opinion.

I think its really sad, but this effect really occurs too often today. We witness something awful and we do nothing about it. While I do not believe it causes everything that happens it is responsible for some problems today.

The bystander effect is when something bad happens and no one reacts. They just stand around and go on about thier buissness. In my opinion this is a sad and selfish concept. The two factors that contribute to the bystander effect is symbolic interactionalism and diffusion of responsibility. I do not beleive that the bystander effect has anything to do with global warming because I personally do not beleive that global warming exists.

The bystander effect is people knowing there is a crime or something going on but they fail to help. Diffusion of responsibility which is when people assume someone else is going to take action so they step back and social interactionism is looking to others to figure out if we should act and what should we do. These both led to the bystander effect.

It is incredible how we as people are prone to think of ourselves first in any given situation. It does not matter if someone is in desperate need of help or not; we tend to shun from our responsibility for a variety of reasons. We also feel our reasons are justifiable, at least, at that moment. In reality, the best response is to place others before ourselves in every situation whether good or bad. What a wonderful place this world would be if everyone did just that!

to me this is simply a case of some people minding their business and then there are those who are inconsiderate for others and their feelings and no one actually care until it happen to them or someone in their family

well to tell the truth, i do not doubt that people are complete morons. but, to actually not stop and help some one on the ground, bleeding? i think that some charges should have been pressed on the people who didn't help. stories like this make me want to give up on people. MISANTHROPY!!!!!!!

Interesting reading. The bystanding effect happens in emergency.

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