Everyday Evil, Part 5: The Bystander Effect

In the early morning hours on March 13, 1964 Kitty Genovese was attacked.

Winston Moseley, Genovese's attacker, approached Kitty Genovese about 100 feet from her door and quickly stabbed her twice in the back. Genovese screamed out and was heard by several neighbors. One neighbor shouted out the window and Moseley ran away.

However, no one came to Genovese's aid.

Mortally wounded, Genovese crawled toward her apartment but, barely conscious, failed to reach her door.

Ten minutes later, Moseley returned. The police had not been called and no one had come outside to find or aid Genovese. Moseley searched the apartment complex until he found Genovese. He stabbed her several more times and sexually assaulted her. He also took the $49 she was carrying.

A few minutes after the final attack a witness did call the police. Kitty Genovese died on the way to the hospital.

In a subsequent article about the Genovese murder, it was claimed that 38 people heard Kitty Genovese's cries that night. Some reports suggested that neighbors refused to call the police because they didn't want to "get involved." One report stated that a neighbor turned up the radio in response to the screams from outside.

Although the facts concerning the collective reaction of the neighbors (the actual number and what they did or did not see that night) are disputed, the Genovese murder did capture the attention of social psychologists. After much investigation into our pervasive apathy and tendency to "not get involved," a name for what happened that night was coined:

The Bystander Effect.

The Bystander Effect is the tendency to not help when other people are present. Two related concepts help explain the Bystander Effect. First, the the Bystander Effect involves diffusion of responsibility. Diffusion of responsibility is a group phenomenon that occurs when responsibility to act is not individually owned or personalized because we are standing in a group. When we stand in a group responsibility is "diffused," spread out thinly over the group, like butter on toast. Thus, it just doesn't feel like it is OUR problem. This is why, if you are certified in CPR, you are told to point at a person and say, "YOU! Call the police!" This prompt forces ONE person to OWN the RESPONSIBILITY.

Pause for Reflection #1: Imagine appeals to church audiences to, let's say, help the poor. Isn't this like the CPR situation? Without cracking the diffusion of responsibility, only a few people, the true saints among us, will act.

Pause for Reflection #2: Sometimes I feel that God is the person giving the CPR, trying to save the world. God looks at the gathered crowd of humanity and begins to point passionately at us, "YOU! YOU! YOU! Help me!" But still, few of us move.

The second feature of the Bystander Effect is social loafing. Specifically, it is a well known fact that when in groups we work less hard. Individuals work harder than groups. We tend to slack off in groups.

To conclude, when you think about it, it could be argued that the Bystander Effect is our greatest sin. It is the Great Wickedness of Humanity. The reason for this is that the Bystander Effect is so insidious. We aren't really doing anything. We are just FAILING to do something. And perhaps this sin of omission is far greater than those sins of comission. That is, few of us actively harm others. But all of us, I suspect, have failed to help. In the language of Jesus, we have "passed by on the other side." Millions of acts of kindness, help, aid, and protection passed over day after day after day.

If everyday evil has a paradigm case, the bystander effect is it.

To stay with our YouTube theme, here is a fun college student project along with some commentary from their professor:

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4 thoughts on “Everyday Evil, Part 5: The Bystander Effect”

  1. I have no doubt that the bystander effect can have its harmful effects (in fact, I've been known to harp on this very issue in conversation). However, in situations where only one or two people need to intervene (e.g to report a traffic accident), the wider group's lack of action can certainly be understood.
    When I see people who look like they might need help, I know one of the things that goes through my mind is "are they already being helped?". And sometimes the answer is yes...
    Many times, granted, the answer is no.

  2. Richard,

    Another thought. The Bystander Effect, this disconnect, may in some way be "connected" to the pervasiveness in our world of visual entertainment: movie and TV. When we watch a movie or a TV show we are both connected vicariously and, at the same time, made aware of our powerlessness and disconnection as mere observers. We are set up to be social voyeurs.

    It is a kind of no man's land in Plato's tale of the cave. We are somewhere between chained to the wall and having seen the light. We are hypnotized by the screen and the drama before us but unable to do anything but walk away with our empty bag of popcorn or turn off the screen and go mow the lawn.
    Samuel Taylor Coleridge called it "the willing suspension of disbelief."

    It seems to me that the Bystander Effect is what generally occurs, to use Martin Buber's terms, in an I-It society not in an I-Thou culture. And does "take a village?" Ideally, children and the defenseless are protected and cared for and assaults are prevented in a village (or in a church). But reality says otherwise. Out of fear and feelings of powerlessness and in order to self-protect, all of us can turn a blind eye or deaf ear to suffering. God have mercy.


    George C.

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