You will be helped! Research using real-world situations fails to replicate the "bystander effect"

Originally published at:


I’m bystandering right now.


I don’t know.

About thirty years ago I was walking downtown and a bunch of people were blocking the sidewalk. I then see one guy within that circle beating another man. I was outraged that people were just standing there watching, so I yelled out “stop it,you’re hurting him”. He stoos, looks at me, I thiught he was going to go after me, and then walked away. I don’t know what it was about, but it just seemed to need someone to speak up.

Maybe that proves the point, but it felt at the time that people would just stand there and let it happen. I don’t think Phil Ochs was wrong.

A few years ago there was a bit of local news, a fight outside a school, others “knew” they were supposed to film the fight, and they did. Nobody seemed to think about speaking out. I’m sure there have been similar stories since then.

I’m more inclined to think it takes people out of the norm to speak up, they don’t have ties to “the group” so they don’t hesitate to act.


This brings to mind the Kitty Genovese case, the facts of which turn out to be very different from what I learned back in the day.

See the extraordinary 2015 documentary film The Witness – an extended interview with Genovese’s brother as he searches for the facts about Kitty’s life and death.

Wikipedia states:

In the early hours of March 13, 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was stabbed outside the apartment building across the street from where she lived in an apartment above a row of shops on Austin Street in Kew Gardens, Queens, a borough of New York City.[2][3][4] Two weeks after the murder, The New York Times published an article claiming that 38 witnesses saw or heard the attack, but none of them called the police or came to her aid.[5]

The incident prompted inquiries into what became known as the bystander effect or “Genovese syndrome”,[6] and the murder became a staple of American psychology textbooks for the next four decades. However, researchers have since uncovered major inaccuracies in the New York Times article.

Reporters at a competing news organization discovered in 1964 that the article was inconsistent with the facts, but they were unwilling at the time to challenge New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal. In 2007, an article in the American Psychologist found “no evidence for the presence of 38 witnesses, or that witnesses observed the murder, or that witnesses remained inactive”.[7] In 2016, The New York Times called its own reporting “flawed”, stating that the original story “grossly exaggerated the number of witnesses and what they had perceived”.[8]

Winston Moseley, a 29-year-old Manhattan native, was arrested during a house burglary six days after the murder. While in custody, he confessed to killing Genovese. At his trial, Moseley was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death; this sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. Moseley died in prison on March 28, 2016, at the age of 81, having served 52 years.


Yeah, I think most people would spontaneously help someone in distress, but I think many people just freeze in case of emergency.
The other day I was at the train station, queuing at the bottom of an escalator. An overly loaded old lady fall backward, on her backpack ! I had to let my bag at the bottom and push everyone to get to her and help her to stand up.
Just picture me really annoyed and grumpy and swearing all the time and you get a full picture of the situation.

5 min later I remember the emergency button at the bottom and top of every freaking escalator, and next time I will be smarter and quicker in a situation like that !


How many people help someone in need because they’re afraid that no one else will help because of the bystander effect?


Is that the by-bystander effect?


I’m shocked, shocked I tell you to learn that the New York Times played fast and loose with the facts! /s


Harlan Ellison played the point man for misinformation stampede. The New York Times was merely cheap fuel for his fire.


I Have No Mouth, And I Must Spin Alternative Facts


Once I was in a car rental building in Phoenix, and a man at the bottom of the escalator lost control of his luggage and fell over multiple times because the steps kept pushing him before he could stand up. We were the only two people there, and I was toward the top of the escalator with no way to get back up fast enough to reach the shut off.

In that scenario, those buttons weren’t much use. The only way for me to access the one at the bottom would’ve been to climb over him. Before I reached him, he finally just let the escalator push him and his bags off onto the floor. Fortunately, his clothing didn’t get caught.


It should certainly remind as the Genovese murder was the case that inspired the entire concept. The first researchers to name and work on the subject were inspired by the news accounts, now known to be false, of the attack. And sought to study and replicate the effects and reactions reported relating to Genovese’s murder. Which again we now know to completely inaccurate.


If it leads to fraudulent “social experiment” youtubers unintentionally getting their asses kicked, I’m in favor of more research.


This is troubling.

If this research has been successfully replicated in the past, it implies that the bystander effect is something that cannot be accurately modeled in experiments, like, say, experiments on which groups are more likely to decline to participate in experiments.

1 Like

The paper’s authors aren’t claiming that the bystander effect hypothesis is wrong.

They’re pointing out that while lots of research has been done on the effect itself, so far no one has looked at whether the reduction in likelihood of a given individual intervening is countered by increased numbers of possible interveners.

It is important therefore to recognize a key distinction between the likelihood of
individual intervention and the aggregate that at least someone provides help. Yet, in
comparison to the vast number of studies that examine intervention from the perspective of the individual bystander, we know surprisingly little about the situational intervention likelihood—that is the probability that at least one bystander at the emergency event

The purpose of the current study is as follows: First, we aim to determine the
percentage of real-life conflicts captured by public cameras where at least one bystander intervenes. Second, in an explorative data analysis, we examine whether this intervention likelihood varies across the national contexts that differ in public perceptions of safety. Finally, we assess whether the situational intervention likelihood increases with additional bystander presence. In other words, we aim to answer the often-neglected question of whether the increased number of potential helpers offsets the reduced willingness to help in each of them, a question raised by Darley and Latané (1968; Latané, 1981) but most frequently neglected in the subsequent experimental literature (Stalder, 2008).


Ahhhh. I withdraw my previous alarm.


Reminds me of another fine myth: the so called “tragedy of the commons”. Probably all about that fabled homo economicus.

A lot of “foundational” studies in Psychology have been proven to be false in the last few years - poor studies, poorly designed and poorly run have been touted as valid psychological inquiry, and have influenced our cultural beliefs and led to bad laws. The whole “recovered memories” scandal, where people had false memories implanted by psychologists who had no idea what they were actually doing, should have been a major cautionary tale, but it was mainly ignored by the Psychology establishment, and quickly forgotten by all but it’s victims.

Don’t trust anything much the study of psychology comes up with until they manage to adopt a more rigorous scientific approach to their work. They need to begin to run (and replicate) much bigger, better run cross-cultural studies, instead of the tiny studies of Western college students they currently favor, which are only good for improving their own professional standing.


Unless you live in China where people believe that bad luck is contagious and they will let you die on the street rather than lend assistance.
China sucks.

In both cases, they got a lot of travel, separate from the originating study or article. So it became kind of “broken telephone” even apart from whether or not there was validity in the first place.

I guess nowadays it would be called a “meme”.

When others incorporate the study, it gives even more travel. Circa 1997 there was a paper about “community networking” that mentioned the " tragedy of the commons". I think it, and memory says it didn’t analyze the original study, more like using the phrase in another area, almost expecting us to know the original study. And someone locally would use the phrase, but since he didn’t say a lot, it was hard to tell if he understood either the secondary or original pape; , it became a buzz phrase.

“Bowling alone” also got travel in those circles at the time.

1 Like