When Everybody’s Problem Is No One’s Problem & So No One Does Anything

a large crowd photographed from the air
Image by Treefort Music Fest / CC BY

In 1964 a woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York City, not far from where she lived at the time. In spite of the fact that there were ostensibly many neighbors in the vicinity who witnessed the attack, it was initially reported that no one came to her aid as she was stabbed to death.

Researchers Darley and Latané found themselves asking why this was the case and began to study possible causes.

They conducted a series of experiments in which they staged an emergency and then measured how long it took for participants to intervene and offer aid, if they did at all.

The researchers found a clear pattern emerging. People were significantly less likely to intervene in situations where there were other people around who could potentially help but were not offering aid as opposed to situations in which they were alone (70% probability alone vs 40% when surrounded by others).

This pattern was attributed to two factors:

  • Diffusion of responsibility: The tendency for people to take less responsibility for their actions (or lack thereof) when other people are around.
  • Social influence: The tendency for people to monitor individuals in their environment for cues of how they should act.

This phenomenon came to be known as bystander effect. It’s one of the strongest, most reliably replicated effects in social science. And it crops up not only in situations where there’s some kind of life-threatening emergency but in plenty of other contexts. The same patterns of behavior can rear their head any time there’s a complicated problem and a lot of people around who are experiencing social paralysis instead of making any attempts to solve it.

How to Combat Bystander Effect

It’s not all doom and gloom. Thankfully, a few methods have been identified that help combat bystander effect:

  • When the person who needs the help makes it personal. This can involve addressing a person by name or singling someone out by making eye contact with them and saying something like, “You there, you in the red shirt, help me.” All of these measures make it significantly less likely that a bystander will walk by without aiding you. In non-emergency situations, such as difficult group problem-solving, this can be assigning a person a specific task, delegating responsibility to an individual rather than to the group as a whole.
  • Modeling helping behavior. Because of the power of social influence, individuals were significantly more likely to intervene in situations when the experimenters had planted a person who helped. In a real world emergency when you’re in crisis, you’re unlikely to be able to do such a thing. However, in non-emergency situations such as a collaborative project or initiative to address a troubling issue, it’s much easier to model that kind of behavior yourself, which will greatly increase the chances that others will follow.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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