The Bystander Effect

Imagine a city. A big, bustling, friendly city.

A city that Reader’s Digest ranked in its top three “most courteous” cities in the world.

Now imagine a city where a 17-year-old is stripped to his underwear, brutally beaten and fatally stabbed in front of dozens of witnesses. A city where at least 20 people hear a flurry of gunshots and pay no attention.

Both of these incidents are murders in Toronto that might have been prevented if even one witness had bothered to pick up a phone.

The body of 17-year-old Omar Wellington was found recently in a wooded area in Flemingdon Park. He had suffered from multiple stab wounds in the neck and was left to die, alone.

Mike Cuevas and Isabelita Malenjana, were found dead by Cuevas’ wife in the family’s garage. Both were shot in the head.

As shocking as this may sound, it’s not an unusual phenomenon.

Genovese Effect

The Bystander Effect, also known as the Genovese Effect, is named for the infamous 1964 murder of Catherine (Kitty) Genovese. Genovese was beaten, raped and murdered in a 30-minute attack in full view of at least a dozen witnesses outside her New York City apartment building.

Police were eventually called and arrived within two minutes, too late for Genovese, who bled to death on the pavement.

John Darley and Bibb Latane, American social psychologists, are generally credited with having done the first academic study of Bystander Effect. In their book The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn’t He Help?, they theorize that the Bystander Effect is caused by a concept they called “diffusion of responsibility.”

“If only one bystander is present at an emergency, he carries all of the responsibility for dealing with it; he will feel all of the guilt for not acting and will bear all of the blame that accrues for non-intervention,” they write.

“If others are present, the onus of responsibility is diffused, and the finger of blame points less directly at any one person.

“Diffusion of responsibility most likely occurred in both of these recent murders when no witnesses called police, assuming that someone else would do so.”

Detective Larry Straver, co-ordinator of Toronto Crime Stoppers, admits this is a common problem, saying Crime Stoppers encourages people to think differently about where responsibility lies.

“We always tell people ‘Don’t rely on someone else to call the police’,” he says. “Do it yourself. You can’t always count on someone else to do it, and you never know, you may have some new information that can help.”

In an article entitled “Apathy”, first published in American Scientist magazine in 1969, Darley and Latane explored the thought process of a typical bystander.

Dr. Rod Lindsay, a psychiatry professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, says this process is most easily explained as a sequence of questions.

“(Darley and Latane) supposed that people respond to situations where help may be needed as if they were asking themselves an ordered series of yes-or-no questions,” Dr. Lindsay says.

That sequence of reasoning is as follows: “1: Did something of note happen (or is something of note going on)? 2: Is it an emergency? 3: Is it my responsibility to help? 4: Can I or do I know how to help?”


Since Darley and Latane’s study was published under the title “Apathy,” the Bystander Effect is now usually considered the product of indifference. Dr. Lindsay argues that more factors are at work.

“Ignorance that help is needed, failure to realize that the event is actually an emergency, thinking others will take care of it (and) not knowing how to help are all … probable conditions leading people not to help,” he says.

“Apathy would occur after I had concluded that it is my responsibility to help but still failed to help.” Even if a person realizes that it is their duty to help, they may not. Dr. Lindsay explains that this is not always caused by lack of concern.

“Apathy need not be the explanation,” he says. “If I see a person drowning but I can’t swim, I may fail to help because I don’t know how.”

Straver does not discount these factors, but he notes another motivation that is often stronger: “It always wavers more towards fear. When speaking to tipsters, you get that sense of fear. You can hear it in their voice,” he says.

“Criminals want people to be afraid, then they know that people won’t be jumping up and saying ‘Hey, I know who did it!’”

Although Crime Stoppers accepts anonymous tips, Straver admits that it isn’t easy convincing tipsters that their anonymity is protected.

“People don’t believe it, but they like the idea,” he says. Since the bystander effect is primarily motivated by individual’s feelings and thoughts, it’s a difficult thing to combat.

Dr. Lindsay suggests that being aware of the phenomenon is a step in the right direction.“Knowledge is a start. Knowing that the effect exists would lead people to accept that helping is always their responsibility until they determine that other help is available,” he says.

“That said, I doubt the problem will ever disappear.” Since witnesses are not legally obligated to report crimes, the best that authorities can do is to encourage the public to do the right thing and reassure tipsters that their identity will stay secret.
“We always reinforce the fact that we’re anonymous,” Straver says.

“We don’t want your name, just your help.”