The Bystander Effect in Emergency Situations

Karen Doll, Psy.D., L.P
March 18, 2019

The term bystander effect has been described as the trap of inaction. It describes the phenomenon during which the presence of others discourages people from taking action in an emergency situation.  The greater the number of people present in a crisis, the less likely individuals are inclined to help someone in distress. 


When there is an emergency, it would be easy to assume that people would jump in to help out. Surprisingly, this is not always what happens. The bystander effect is when a group of people witness the same crisis yet fail to take action.

The concept of the bystander effect emerged after the rape and murder of Kitty Genovese.  In 1964, 38 people heard a woman being killed in New York and did not intervene. It is hard to imagine how this could happen as they listened to this woman being murdered. This perplexing situation brought awareness  to the bystander effect. It confused experts and led to extensive research and attention in the following years.  It was hypothesized that people did not take action, assuming that someone else must have already called the police. This is recognized as the diffusion of responsibility.  It has since been heavily studied and researched, with more data to support that the more people witness a crisis, the less likely the victim will get help.

If people are asked if they would assist in an emergency situation, of course people will reply as though they would take action. However, in real life, most people refrain from taking action in a crisis, especially when they know others are present.

After the NY murder, John Darley and Bibb Latane conducted extensive research on the named bystander effect. In their studies, they discovered that only 62% of participants took action to help when they were part of a group of five bystanders.  Subsequent research also supports that this pattern is observed doing numerous types of crises including accidents and events even involving children.

The reasons for the bystander effect have been studied by psychologists for years.  There are several proposed factors that contribute to bystander apathy.  The most common hypothesis is the diffusion of responsibility.  Another factor proposed is the fear of what people will think in public. People have a desire to behave in socially acceptable ways.  This is referred to as evaluation apprehension, concerns about public judgment in a group setting.  There also may be a belief at play that because no one is helping, people assume the situation is not really a crisis.  This concept is described as pluralistic ignorance. Despite these traditional explanations and hypotheses, it still remains somewhat of a mystery how and why the bystander effect occurs.  Social Psychologists explain the lack of helping behavior in groups by situational influences on the decision making process. More recent theories have emerged integrating emotional, motivational, and dispositional factors.  Newer perspectives propose that in these group settings, personal distress is increased and fixed reaction patterns of avoidance and freezing take over. Researchers are still exploring what other psychological processes, motivational factors, or personality dimensions may play a role in the bystander behaviors. 

There are intervening factors that have been studied as well.  Researchers have explored situations in which the bystander effect may be less likely to occur.  Gregory Rutkowski identified group cohesiveness as a key motivator in a group of people.  He proposed that individuals within a shared group designation or community are more likely to help because they know and are connected to each other.  In Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, studies indicate that bystanders are actually more likely to help people who are wearing similar clothing. In these situations, there is a sense of familiarity, which can create a similar sense of cohesiveness. 

An important outcome of attention drawn to the bystander effect is the increase of awareness to this phenomenon.  Understanding the social paralysis that occurs during emergency situations is important for the cycle to change.  Efforts have been made to promote the concept of being an “active bystander” to encourage people to take action in emergencies.  Continuing to spread this awareness has implications on how crises are handled in group settings. 

Karen Doll, Psy.D., L.P

Karen Doll has been a Licensed Psychologist in the Twin Cities for 20 years, working in organizational consulting. She leverages her education in Clinical Psychology with her leadership assessment expertise in her practice. She is an executive coach focusing on helping people maximize their potential.

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