Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Effect of the Bystander

On March 13, 1964, thirty-eight people witnessed Kitty Genovese brutally stabbed to death in front of her New York City apartment building. The stabbing took place over thirty-two minutes, began in front of the building, and ended in a hallway. The papers reported that although she screamed throughout the entire attack, witnesses did nothing.

This incident coined the famous “bystander effect” and spurred many social-psychological experiments that seemed to suggest the more people present, the less help offered. Many of these studies painted a bleak picture of people turning away en masse from what appeared to be a person in need.

I watched Kitty Genovese’s story last year on ID Channel’s A Crime to Remember, and it got me thinking about the bystander effect in the halls of the local high school. There has been a surge in the number of fights we’ve had in the last few years. Some of them take place in the hallways, some outside the schools, and some in the bathrooms. Loosening of disciplinary measures and lack of consequences may account for the increase (and let's face it, there have always been fights in high school), but I am continually shocked by the students gathering, excited to watch, most of them filming the action with their cell phones. No one ever intervenes. Often there are so many bystanders that it creates a barrier to the security guards trying to break it up. Within minutes, the film is on YouTube with hundreds if not thousands of views. Because voyeurism is fun to kids, and it makes for a good download.

What really disturbs me about this is the learned passivity. Kids are learning not to get involved—worry about yourself, just look the other way. That may be acceptable in a school environment, but what about out in the world when someone needs help? Should you step over them? Walk on by? Pretend you don’t hear or see them? Will this next generation be too selfish and desensitized that they’ll be immune to the suffering of others?

Because of this, I was very encouraged when I heard that in the recent Stanford sexual assault, two Stanford students from Sweden (Peter Jonsson and Carl-Fredrik Arndt) were riding by on bicycles when they witnessed the attack. They chased down and tackled Brock Turner, holding him down until police arrived. 

Hearing this (and other stories like it) gives me hope that there are still people out there courageous enough to jump into a situation, even risking their own lives, to do what is right.

And in fact, over the years, more information has come forth showing that in the studies on the bystander effect, some people in the experiments were instructed to appear passive, thus creating doubt in the minds of the others. Was the person really in trouble? Did they truly need help? But if one person actively helped, more people were willing to jump in and offer assistance.

Recent updates on the Kitty Genovese case prove that the papers had it wrong (anyone surprised?). People from the apartment building did call the police; people did call out their window or shout at the attacker. So the witnesses were not quite as heartless as originally portrayed by the media.

It’s hard to know what you would do until you’re in a specific situation. I’d like to think I’d intervene if I saw someone being attacked, but when your adrenaline is pumping and fear takes over, sometimes flight overtakes fight.

In case you’re interested in watching the full story on Kitty Genovese, here is a link to A Crime to Remember.

What do you think? If you saw someone being attacked, would you jump in and help?


  1. It is interesting that the crowd did call police and call for the attacker to stop, but no one actually went to intervene. It is hard to step in and do something, especially if we feel we might have our lives put into danger as a result. Maybe we need to study how first responders do it because they usually find themselves in situations where their lives could be compromised.

    I would like to think I would help someone, but I just don't know until the actual situation would occur. The least I hope I could do is call the police.


    1. I know. It's easy to say, "I would do this or that," but we really don't know unless we're in the situation. Just a couple of weeks ago, I read about a bystander who came to a woman's aid who was being shot in a parking lot. He lost his life in so doing. Very heroic, but also very tragic. :(