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Bystander Effect


Explanations > Theories > Bystander Effect

Description | Research | Example | So What? | See also | References 



When there is an emergency, the more bystanders there are, the less likely it is that any of them will actually help. 

Pluralistic ignorance is where they assume nothing is wrong because nobody else looks concerned.

Bystanders go through a five-step process, during each of which they can decide to do nothing.

  • Notice the event (or in a hurry and not notice).
  • Realize the emergency (or assume that as others are not acting, it is not an emergency).
  • Assume responsibility (or assume that others will do this).
  • Know what to do (or not)
  • Act (or worry about danger, legislation, embarrassment, etc.)


Latané and Darley sat a series of college students in a cubicle amongst a number of other cubicles in which there were tapes of other students playing (the student thought they were real people). One of the voices cries for help and makes sounds of severe choking. When the student thought they were the only person there, 85% rushed to help. When they thought there was one other person, this dropped to 65%. And when they thought there were four other people, this dropped again to 31%.

They also faked epileptic seizures on the streets of New York and found that when there was only one bystander, they were helped 85% of the time, but when there were five bystanders, help came only in 30% of these trials.


A famous case occurred in the early 1960, where Kitty Genovese was attacked and eventually murdered over a 45 minute period during which 38 people witnessed the attack and did not lift a finger to help in any way.

This was caused partially by social proof, whereby when people are uncertain, they look to other people as to what to do. It can also be caused by people losing themselves in the crowd and assuming a smaller share of the responsibility, expecting others to help in their stead.

So what?

Using it

If you want someone to do something, ask them specifically (by name)  or make sure they cannot assume that somebody else will do it. You can also set an example and ask for collaboration.


If you think somebody else should be doing what you have been asked to do, question the motives of the person asking you (even ask why they are not doing it themselves!).

See also

Deindividuation, Informational Social Influence, Pluralistic Ignorance, Social Loafing


Latané and Darley (1970)


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