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Examples of the Bystander Effect

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Boulism writes about everything from parakeets to psychology.

Some of the more common bystander effect examples include car accidents and rubbernecking.

Some of the more common bystander effect examples include car accidents and rubbernecking.

Just Admit It, You've Done It

Have you ever driven by a car accident? Did you stop? Did you call the police? Chances are, despite the fact that you won’t admit it to others, you know the answer is yes.

Don’t worry, you are not alone. This is a well know human phenomenon known as the bystander effect. Most of us, depending on the situation, will diffuse responsibility if we are in the presence others. The question as to why we do this is complex and intriguing.

The following examples offer a fascinating inquiry into this uncomfortable yet common human behavior.

Kitty Genovese

On March 13, 1964, a twenty-eight year old woman named Kitty Genovese was walking to her apartment after a long night of managing the bar she worked for. In a classic case of “wrong place at the wrong time," Kitty was chased and then stabbed by a man named Winston Moseley.

Despite being well into the early morning hours, it is clear from eyewitness testimony that the attack was heard by the neighbors inside her Queens, NY apartment building and their yells frightened him away. The attacker ran away only to return ten minutes later to further stab her, rape her, and steal her money over a period of close to a half of an hour.

So the question is: If the neighbors heard the first attack, did they not hear the second one? Why did it take so long to call the police? (Eventually, they did show up and Kitty died en route to the hospital.)

Without a doubt, this was not the first case of the bystander effect (I can envision “cave-people” turning a blind eye when another cave-person gets attacked by an animal), but it certainly thrust it into the spotlight.

Genovese on the left, Moseley on the right

Genovese on the left, Moseley on the right

So Why Do We Do It?

The first answer to this question is found in another psychological concept: conformity. We do not like going against the group. If you are in a big city where literally millions of people will walk by someone laying on the street, you are less likely to stop yourself. If you do, you are breaking the group code and you will feel awkward.

On the other hand, if you are the only person around, you are more likely to immediately seek help. The study known as the Smoky Room Experiment showcases this concept.

Does Appearance Matter?

It is one thing to conform to group norms, but we cannot rule out our prejudices when we examine the bystander effect. The way we dress, the color of our skin, our gender, coupled with the location we are in, all contribute to whether or not people will help others.

Take a look at the following video clips as examples. It is hard to ignore how much appearance impacts others’ actions.

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Is It Really All About Safety?

In the end, whether we are conforming and/or being prejudice, there is no ignoring that diffusing responsibility is a part of our lives. Something else to consider is that we really just don’t want to get hurt, or worse, die. If we approach an unknown situation, there is an automatic “flight or fight” response within our central nervous system. We either use our adrenaline and stress to help us attack an unknown situation or we choose to flee.

Next time, despite the pull to flee, see if you can fight the good fight and stop to help, despite the fact that no one else is.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Elle Bea on April 11, 2020:

That’s the thing though, people don’t know how they would react unless they are literally put into that position. There have been countless studies using different methods to understand that. The experiments that Larsen and Daley did are perfect examples of how people would react in a way that’s is unacceptable to society ideals. It’s the fight or flight method. The diffusion off responsibility is a universal feeling, however the experiments are in a controlled environment and as we all know real life is full of unpredictable and uncontrollable factors so the variables that need to the results of the experiments may not be that same case if it was on the street. For example the method cannot apply to the 38 witnesses in the James Bulger case, the reason they didn’t help is because they felt it wasn’t their place as it was a private, familial trouble.

As much as I’d like to say, I would help and intervene, I couldn’t know for certain.

Angel on May 18, 2018:

id honestly expect others to do something about it so i just dont do anything

poopypantsman2004 on May 14, 2018:

oi yeah if i saw a girl geting stabbed i'd scream too and run. I'm not a police officer, not my job. My job is going to be navy seal!!! heck yur

oof on February 27, 2018:

Im autistic and don't care

Maddie on January 26, 2018:

I'm not scared. I would rather save someone's life then to be scared

Angelina on December 12, 2016:

Hi we are learning Bystander affect in 5th grade Advanced Language Arts. This helped a lot.

damilare on February 23, 2016:

this article really helps alot

bob on October 15, 2013:

why would they just walk by i would help them

Boulism (author) from Short Beach, CT on January 24, 2013:

Thanks so much vespawoolf, thank you for reading!

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on January 24, 2013:

This is an uncomfortable but important subject to discuss. It's important to stand up for what is right and not be ruled by what is easy, "safe" or acceptable. Kitty's was a tragic case and one that I'm sure has been repeated many times. Thanks for this well-written and interesting Hub.

Boulism (author) from Short Beach, CT on January 20, 2013:

Thank you teaches for your kind words. I enjoyed writing it.

Dianna Mendez on January 19, 2013:

Boulism, this is a very powerful article and well written. It makes you think. Are we our brother's keeper -- at all times? What we do in every circumstance defines us more than anything else. We are not perfect, but striving to do the right thing makes us better people. Voted up and shared!

Boulism (author) from Short Beach, CT on January 19, 2013:

I hear ya, I'm better than I used to be, but I still sometime "flee" because I'm not so sure how to handle a situation.

MPanta from Lisbon on January 19, 2013:

Interesting hub, I did not know about this effect.

I have passed by some situations and after that I feel strange since I do not know what I should have done.

crazyteacher from Virginia on January 17, 2013:

I think it is a testament to the fact that racism is alive and well in America. I was horrified, but not surprised. I was very surprised by the smoking room video, as I would have been directing everyone out of the door in an orderly fashion! LOL

I will admit that it is uncomfortable helping people in need, but I try to when I can. Recently, my husband and I helped a women who did not have enough gas to make it to her family for Christmas. She had been stuck in a McDonald's parking lot for days. We took her and filled up her tank and gave her some money to get something to eat. Of course, maybe I only helped because my husband was with me, but I like to think it is because I am able to push past the discomfort.

Very interesting hub.

Gail Louise Stevenson from Mason City on January 17, 2013:

You're welcome. I saw the three videos and they were so true. I recall the one where the girl with the dark hair is sitting and there's smoke coming into the room. She just keeps sitting and looking around. I'd be really scared if I saw smoke.

Boulism (author) from Short Beach, CT on January 17, 2013:

I agree that it is somewhat disheartening, but that's what makes it so interesting to me: why, even if we know this, do most of us continue to diffuse responsibility? Bless you for not being one of those people.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on January 17, 2013:

It is a strange and sad phenomenon. I am kind of a nut, I guess. I am the one who butts in when I see someone needs help. Sometimes it has been a bit dangerous in hindsight but there is something that won't let me not


I have stopped many times when people needed help along the highway.

That being said, I do not know what I would do if someone were being raped and beaten except this...I know I would call the police. Would I go out and risk being involved physically? I do not know. I hope I do not have to make that decision.

this was an interesting though somewhat disheartening read.

Sending angels to you :) ps

Boulism (author) from Short Beach, CT on January 16, 2013:

Thanks so much for your input. I teach Psychology to High School students and have always found this to be one of the most interesting concepts. Unfortunately, I don't always follow though helping others even though I'm aware of this concept. Strange.

Gail Louise Stevenson from Mason City on January 16, 2013:

Really great hub and very interesting. Its so true, too. People are afraid to do anything if they see someone who needs help. I don't think people want to get involved.

One time this overweight woman who had a leg brace was trying to get into her car. She needed help and I was close by. She asked me to help her, so I did. She was able then to get into her car and she went on her way. I am glad that I could help her. She asked for help, though. Nice hub and I voted up and interesting + awesome!

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