Why We Don’t Help Others: Bystander Apathy

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When the presence of others reduces helping behaviours.

The next nomination for the best social psychology study was inspired by the highly publicised murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964 and it is mentioned in every textbook and often dubbed ‘seminal’.

The study investigates the ‘bystander effect’. In social psychology this is the surprising finding that the mere presence of other people inhibits our own helping behaviours in an emergency.

John Darley and Bibb Latane were inspired to investigate emergency helping behaviours after the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964. The newspaper report of the murder stated that 38 people had heard and seen the attack, which lasted an hour, yet they did nothing. Subsequent reports, however, suggest the number of witnesses was much lower and few, perhaps none, had witnessed the whole attack.

Epileptic seizure

Whatever the status of this incident the facts of the study are well-known. Participants were invited into the lab under the pretext they were taking part in a discussion about ‘personal problems’ (Darley & Latane, 1968). Participants were talking to a number of unknown others, varying from just one up to four in each of the experimental trials.

Because of the sensitive nature of the discussion they were told the discussion would take place over an intercom. In fact this was just a ruse to ensure the participants couldn’t physically see the other people they were talking to.

During the discussion one member of the group would suddenly appear to be having an epileptic seizure. Here is the script:

“I-er-um-I think I-I need-er-if-if could-er-er-somebody er-er-er-er-er-er-er give me a little-er-give me a little help here because-er-I-er-I’m-er-erh-h-having a-a-a real problem-er-right now and I-er-if somebody could help me out it would-it would-er-er s-s-sure be-sure be good . . . because-there-er-er-a cause I-er-I-uh-I’ve got a-a one of the-er-sei er-er-things coming on and-and-and I could really-er-use some help so if somebody would-er-give me a little h-help-uh-er-er-er-er-er c-could somebody-er-er-help-er-uh-uh-uh (choking sounds). . . . I’m gonna die-er-er-I’m . . . gonna die-er-help-er-er-seizure-er-[chokes, then quiet].”

The experimenters then measured how long it took for participants to go the person’s aid. They clearly found that the more people were involved in the group discussion, the slower participants were to respond to the apparent emergency. It seems that the presence of others inhibits people’s helping behaviours.

Don’t you care?

Some participants made no move to intervene in the apparent emergency. What was going on? Darley and Latane (1968) report that those who did not act were far from uncaring about the seizure victim. Quite the reverse in fact, compared to those who did report the emergency, they appeared to be in a more heightened state of arousal. Many were sweating, had trembling hands and looked to be in considerable discomfort.

The non-helpers appeared to be caught in a double bind that locked them up. One part of them felt shame and guilt for not helping. Another part of them didn’t want to expose themselves to embarrassment or to ruin the experiment which, they had been told depended on each conversant remaining anonymous from the others.

More than Milgram?

It’s here that I wonder about the originality of the finding. Certainly Milgram’s study of obedience casts a long shadow over this experiment. Similar to the Milgram situation, participants here were put under pressure to continue with the experiment by authority figures (the psychologists). Again, someone was suffering discomfort and participants felt conflicted about whether or not to intervene. In this case in an epileptic seizure, in Milgram’s study, it was the electrical shocks participants themselves were administering.

This study’s originality comes from the finding that the more people are present, the longer participants take to help. And this is certainly an important insight in social psychological terms. Because of the way the experiment was set up participants had no way of knowing how the other people who heard the seizure had responded. This meant that the only variable was how many other people they knew to be present.

Image credit: Helga Webber

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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 16 October 2007

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