Bystander Effect

What Is the Bystander Effect?

The bystander effect occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation. Social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley popularized the concept following the infamous 1964 Kitty Genovese murder in New York City. As Genovese was stabbed to death outside her apartment, neighbors failed to step in to assist or call the police. Latané and Darley attributed the bystander effect to the perceived diffusion of responsibility (onlookers are less likely to intervene if there are other witnesses who seem likely to do so) and social influence (individuals monitor the behavior of those around them to determine how to act).

The Mind of the Bystander

The social paralysis described by the bystander effect has implications for how we behave not only on city streets filled with strangers, but any place where we work or socialize. When individuals relinquish responsibility for addressing a problem, the potential negative outcomes are wide-ranging—from minor household issues that housemates collectively avoid dealing with to violence and abuse that go unchecked. Some efforts have been made, including on college campuses, to encourage people to be “active bystanders” and fight the urge to step aside when someone is in trouble.

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