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Bystander Apathy – Why We Follow Others


Kitty Genovese

On March 13th, 1964, in the borough of Queens in New York City, a twenty-eight-year-old woman named Kitty Genovese was violently murdered on the sidewalk outside her apartment building. Two weeks later, the New York Times published an article claiming that 38 people witnessed the murder from inside their apartments, hearing Ms. Genovese’s screams and cries for help. Despite these calls, though, the Times reported that not one of these witnesses did a thing to stop the murder, from yelling out to the killer to calling the police.

The Times story became a springboard for nationwide discussion about the inaction of witnesses to terrible events, becoming a symbol of a phenomenon that has become known as bystander apathy. In the following decades, dozens of experiments confirmed this belief that bystanders don’t feel responsible for doing anything to help people in need. Instead, most people will follow the examples of those around them. But how valid are these experiments? Do they really prove that ordinary people won’t do anything to save a dying person? Let’s explore.

The Smoking Room Experiment

The first well-known social experiment to test bystander apathy was the Smoking Room Experiment. Conducted by John Darley and Bibb Latané in the late 1960s, the test was conducted with students from Columbia University in New York. Participants were asked to complete an interview about student life, but, first, they were told to sit in a waiting room for six to ten minutes as they filled out a questionnaire. The waiting room was where the real experiment occurred. 

As the participant filled out the forms, smoke flooded into the room from a small vent in the wall. Within minutes, the room was filled with smoke, often obscuring the participant’s vision and causing coughing. The experiment’s main point was to determine how long it would take the participant to respond to the smoke by reporting it to an official or otherwise doing something about it. The test included a single variable— how many people sat in the room with the subject. 

In the first series of tests, the students sat alone in the waiting room. Under these conditions, the participants essentially always investigated the smoke’s source and reported it to an employee working in the reception area outside the waiting room. 

In the second condition, the student was not alone. Instead, two or three other people were in the room, but these people were not oblivious bystanders. They were part of the experiment and were under direction to ignore the smoke. They would briefly look at it pouring into the room, shrug their shoulders, and pass it off as unimportant. Under these conditions, 90% of participants sat patiently in the waiting room for the full six-minutes, at which point the room was so full of smoke as to obscure vision. These participants were often coughing and rubbing their own eyes in discomfort, but the most drastic action that most of them took was opening a window to ventilate the room.

The conclusion was bold but striking. When acting alone, participants felt a responsibility for doing something about the smoke. However, when observing that other bystanders did nothing, the participants simply followed suit. This study became the basis for dozens of similar tests that seemed to prove the existence of widespread bystander apathy.

Other Experiments

The smoke-filled room is the most well-publicized of bystander apathy experiments, but many other prominent studies have shown similar results. One such example is commonly referred to as the Fallen Lady. However, this test had some key differences.

The experiment called for the subject to enter a waiting room, where they remained until the next stage in the “experiment.” Like the smoke-filled room, the real test occurred in this waiting area. The experimenter would instruct the person to take a seat, walk into a separate room separated only by a curtain, and play an audio recording of a person slipping and falling. 

The test subject, well within earshot of the audio recording, sat in one of four circumstances. The person either sat alone, with a friend, a stranger, or a confederate who was instructed to remain passive. 70 percent of the subjects who were waiting alone responded in some way, most often by getting up to check on the person. On the contrary, those sitting with a passive confederate only responded 7 percent of the time. Meanwhile, subjects who were paired with other random people responded 40 percent of the time, and those paired with friends did something just over half the time.

Another critical study came a few years later, creating even more complex environments to test bystander apathy. In this scenario, a naive subject was brought into a room where they would meet with a handful of others to discuss their stress levels. The person would be unable to see any of the other participants, who were actually pre-recorded voices. During the conversation, one “participant” would suffer a seizure, moaning in pain and even asking for help. The subjects’ responses varied based on a few criteria. 

First, the experimenters played with the number of people present in the room, ranging from two (just the subject and the victim), three (the subject, the victim, and a friend), or six. The differences between the variables were stark. In the two and three-person tests, the person was almost 90 percent likely to leave the room to report the seizure, but in the six-person tests, the likelihood fell to 31 percent.

Together, these three tests, along with dozens of others like them, painted a dark picture of bystander apathy. 

Understanding Apathy

In the decades following the Kitty Genovese murder, these experiments seemed to show that bystander apathy was real, but what exactly was its cause?

Firstly, there are a few surface-level reasons. When humans witness an emergency, they often go into a state of shock. After all, we don’t often witness dramatic crises, so most people don’t know how to respond. The shock’s power varies immensely from person to person, but it will often cause someone to freeze. Fear is another factor. Many people are afraid that they’re unable to help, that helping could put them in danger, or even that they’re merely misunderstanding the situation and the emergency isn’t as it seems. Furthermore, in some parts of the world, including much of the US, interveners can find themselves liable for damages, sometimes resulting in getting sued in court. Some states have established so-called “Good Samaritan” laws to protect interveners from these repercussions, but they are not standard.

Experimenters point to two more significant factors that contribute to bystander apathy, though. The first is called the diffusion of responsibility. In the smoking-room experiment, when the subject was alone, they perceived themselves as the only person responsible for ensuring that the fire didn’t burn the building to the ground. There was a potential catastrophe, and they were the only person capable of stopping it. This is why solo participants were highly likely to respond no matter the test. When other people are present in the room, though, no single person feels solely responsible. When responsibility is shared, individuals don’t feel compelled to act. 

The other crucial factor in apathy is called social pressure. In other words, people feel compelled to mirror the behavior of those around them, especially in unfamiliar circumstances. All the experiments included trials where the subject was surrounded by passive confederates of the experimenters, and these were always the most dramatic cases of apathy. So, when surrounded by apathetic people, the overwhelming majority, 70 to 90 percent, according to the experiments, will respond with indifference.

However, the tests may have shown another side of social pressure. Remember, in the tests where the subject was with a friend instead of a passive observer, they were more likely to intervene. There was a slight reduction in responses compared to solo trials, presumably due to diffused responsibility, but the decline was minimal. This is because the social pressure from friends or other bystanders is not necessarily negative. In trials that included a friend or stranger, a prompt or question asked by the subject, like “should we do something,” was often enough to spur the other person to intervene. It seems that most people do feel responsible for helping a victim, and they will follow through on that responsibility when encouraged by others.

This led to a common criticism of all the experiments— they didn’t accurately reflect the real world. Bystanders who are instructed to remain passive will skew the social pressures to an unnaturally submissive level. 

To test this criticism, researchers recently conducted an open-world experiment based on CCTV footage from Amsterdam, Cape Town, and Lancaster, England. Experimenters combed through footage to find public instances of harassment or otherwise troubling situations, though they eliminated examples that included the threat of serious harm. The study showed that in 90 percent of cases, a victim was likely to receive help. In fact, the victim was more likely to receive support as the number of bystanders increased. 

This may seem to disprove the bystander theory, but that isn’t necessarily true. That’s because bystander apathy states that a single person is less likely to intervene. In other words, if one person in a crowd of 100 intervenes in an emergency, then there is a one-percent likelihood of intervention. Compared to the 90 percent likelihood that a lone bystander will interfere in an emergency, this recent experiment may not disprove the theory at all.

Still, the study showed that public emergencies are likely to warrant a response from someone, even if the response rate declines from 90 percent. But, wouldn’t that contradict the original example of witness apathy? The Kitty Genovese story showed a dramatic case of indifference, but it turns out that story wasn’t quite what it seemed.

The Real Story

The Kitty Genovese murder has been used as an example of bystander apathy for decades. Remember, the New York Times reported that 38 people witnessed her violent murder without intervening in any way. This narrative was used as the basis not only for bystander apathy but as a justification for claims that urban populations, who in the United States were likely to be minorities, were somehow less civilized than people living in the suburbs. 

However, the truth surfaced in 2007, when a report by the American Psychologist paper discovered there was no evidence of the 38 witnesses. In fact, the New York Times report was riddled with errors. In retrospect, it seems that the Times editor may have intentionally changed the story to fit a narrative that he felt would sell more papers. A 2016 editorial by the New York Times even admitted that the original article, published over fifty years ago, was based on fabricated facts. 

It was eventually revealed that there had been multiple calls into the local police station on the evening that Ms. Genovese was killed, but the police didn’t respond in time. After all, the murder lasted only a few minutes. Other witnesses reportedly yelled out to the killer that police were coming. Nobody physically intervened to stop the act, but this was no smoking room. The potential threat to an intervener was massive, and this likely deterred any further action. 

In other words, when smoke is pouring into a room that you’re sitting in, the risk of doing nothing is much higher than the risk of doing something. On the other hand, if a woman is being violently murdered with a knife, bystanders must risk their own lives to intervene. This is why, on the night of Kitty’s murder, the intervention was limited to a few shouts to stop and a couple calls to the police department. The story remains a troubling tale of crime in 19th-century New York, but it may not be the perfect example of bystander apathy after all.

Be A Good Bystander

Psychology experts say the best way to be a better bystander is to replace apathy with empathy. Even minor actions can play a huge role in helping a victim in extreme circumstances or stopping an emergency like a fire before it gets out of hand. As a victim, attempt to make eye-contact with a single person, and address them directly, asking for help. This focuses responsibility on a single person, increasing the likelihood that they will respond. 

So, is bystander empathy real? At this point, it’s difficult to say. It seems clear that the diffusion of responsibility is real, particularly when social pressure says to do nothing. But what about in real-world circumstances? Could it be that these experiments fail to address real examples of apathy? Perhaps most importantly, the next time you witness an emergency in a crowded area, how will you respond?

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