The Bystander Effect
Imagine a city. A big, bustling, friendly
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
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.
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
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
“(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
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
“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,”
“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
“We always reinforce the fact that we’re anonymous,”
“We don’t want your name, just your help.”
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