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What is the Bystander Effect?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The bystander effect is also called the Genovese Effect, Genovese Syndrome, or diffusion of responsibility. The theory behind this phenomenon is that an individual’s likelihood of helping a person in need is directly tied to the number of people witnessing the person’s need at the same time. According to the psychological literature on this phenomenon, a person is far less likely to help someone else in need if he or she is not the sole witness to the person in need.

The opposite of the bystander effect is bystander intervention. If a person requires help, another person, unaccompanied by friends or witnesses, is much more likely to offer help. When many people together witness a person in need of help, confusion begins to arise about who should help, and most people assume someone else will intervene.

The Genovese Effect is named for such an instance that shocked the nation in 1964. Kitty Genovese, native New Yorker, was sexually assaulted and killed by Winston Moseley, in front of her very large apartment building. It was early in the morning, and many dismissed Genovese's calls for help as a domestic fight between a couple. One person even shouted out the window at Moseley. Moseley initially left the scene after stabbing Genovese twice. Ten minutes later, Moseley returned, and Genovese remained desperately attempting to reach her apartment. Since no one had gone out to offer help or assistance to Genovese, Moseley brutally raped and killed her.

Evidence does suggest that several calls were placed to police, but no one left their apartment to assist Ms. Genovese. Even when she had succeeded in getting into the hall of her apartment, no one checked on her. Though evidence on how many people witnessed the crime was exaggerated, it was clear that response to the crime by a number of people was to do nothing. Too many people dismissed the incident or thought someone else would help.

This incident enraged Americans, prompting psychologists to study whether there truly existed a bystander effect. A study conducted in 1968 examined how a group of people might react to a fake seizure happening to a member of the group. In some cases, people failed to even alert the conductors of the experiment that someone had had a seizure. From these studies, and subsequent other murders that have occurred before several witnesses, psychologists have concluded that this is a verifiable phenomenon.

What seems to occur to witnesses of a crime is the sense that someone else is more qualified to help. For example, calls to police by people who witnessed the Genovese murder were seen as ending a person’s social responsibility to another person. Some psychologists suggest that the bystander effect may be due in part to the reactions of witnesses. They may look to other witnesses to guide their own course of action. When no one appears to be reacting, then no single person is likely to act.

While it would seem that a person in a public place would be relatively safe from an attack, research on the bystander effect proves this not to be the case. In self defense classes, teachers often cover this effect and tell people that if they are attacked in front of a group of people, they should appeal to one person in the crowd only, as specifically as possible, identify things about them. Eye contact with that person may also be helpful in gaining help and countering the bystander effect.

TheHealthBoard is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a TheHealthBoard contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon344676 — On Aug 11, 2013

I recently witnessed a murder and an attempted suicide. I ran out there, at the same time calling the police - I had no other thoughts then to ensure everyone was OK. While I was checking the people, the female was dead at the scene and the murderer was still breathing. Once the call to emergency services been made, I stayed at the scene to ensure no one touched or came near the shotgun lying on the ground.

While I waited for the emergency services to arrive, I looked around to see all my neighbours looking out of their windows and two females down the other end of the street looking, but not one person helped or came to the scene.

Once the emergency services arrived and did their job (very well) I later felt angry at these neighbours and couldn't understand why no one else had run to the scene as that was the first thing I did. I have recently become a mother so maybe that has something to do with it, but I still feel confused as to why no one else did anything, even when I was there.

By shell4life — On Dec 10, 2012

@Oceana – I think that the social psychology of the bystander effect applies to most people, but some mothers become immune to it. I have a friend who, like you, cannot stand by and do nothing while someone else is hurting, and she has four children of her own.

She recently came upon a wrecked van with a man lying down on the grass beside it. She pulled over, as many other people had done, but when she got out of her car, she could see that no one else had actually approached him. They just stood around staring.

She pulled a blanket from her backseat and ran up to him. He was barely conscious and covered in blood. She covered him with the blanket and called 911 and was amazed to learn that no one else had even called them yet!

By orangey03 — On Dec 10, 2012

I heard about the bystander effect on the news once, and I was amazed at how uncaring a group of people can actually be. However, when no one else is around, a person is much more willing to help someone.

By Oceana — On Dec 09, 2012

I used to be subject to the bystander effect, but after I had children, everything changed. I became more compassionate toward others, and I suppose my maternal instinct kicked in toward just about everyone.

I cannot sit still or keep walking if I hear someone crying or in distress. There is something in me that compels me to move toward them and take their pain away.

Have any other new mothers here experienced this? I know some of my friends say they only feel maternal toward their own kids, but for me, it goes out to everyone. I can't keep myself from helping them, even if it is dangerous to do so.

By wavy58 — On Dec 08, 2012

I had never heard of bystander effect psychology before reading this article. I always assumed that when people refused to help a person in need in a crowded place, they were just being cold and heartless.

It seems that people living in cities are so used to con artists, criminals, and people begging for money that they learn to tune out “the crazy folk.” You never know when someone really might need emergency assistance, so this complacency is a dangerous thing.

By anon277926 — On Jul 03, 2012

I think all human beings are born with a psychological deficiency where do not show our reactions, assuming they will not liked by a group or thinking that if other people are not reacting, it is our duty not to react. This has been seen from the ancient times from the era of Mahabharat in India, where everybody kept quiet at the time when Draupadi cheered for haran.

By anon32338 — On May 20, 2009

this article was very useful

By WGwriter — On Apr 16, 2008

As the article mentioned, it is very helpful if the victim can appeal to one of the witnesses. I think another thing that may help is for people to understand that the bystander effect exists. Being aware of it means that if you do see a crime occurring you should possibly try to help (though this may imperil yourself and you ought to consider what you're up against.) Shouting to other people viewing a crime with you to help you might be a good idea too. Someone armed with fists isn't likely to keep attacking another person if a whole group moved toward that person. If you see a crime occurring, do call the police, and remember no one else may have thought to. I recently had an experience where some kids decided to shoot off guns on a street near my condo-- Everybody called, and though it turned out to be fairly innocent (well as innocent as shooting off guns for fun can be), it was good to know that a lot of neighbors reported it. My hubbie did argue with me about calling and was victim to the bystander effect. He did assume that other people would have called already so "why should we?" I never make that assumption anymore and writing this article helped me understand why I never should.

By anon11369 — On Apr 15, 2008

in the bystander effect, what are the aspects that must be realized before people can help?

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a TheHealthBoard contributor, Tricia...
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