Today marks the 45 year anniversary of the murder of Kitty Genovese, the event which prompted Darley and Latane’s ground-breaking work into what is now widely referred to as Bystander Effect.

One of the more disturbing things about the Genovese murder was that it did not take place in an isolated area. The police investigation revealed that more than 38 people had heard the attack – including Genovese’s repeated screams for help – but still no-one had helped her. No-one even called the police.

The newspaper editorials at the time dredged up the usual explanations: declining moral standards, the corruption of city life etc., but Darley and Latane had a couple of hypotheses that they thought might go some way to explaining what had happened. They were

  • that when there are many bystanders – people also observing the situation who are in a position to act – people use the reactions of these others to interpret the situation, and to decide whether it is really one that requires action.
  • that when there are many bystanders, each person feels a diminished responsibility for acting, as if the responsibility could be shared out between them.

They used some ingenious – and now famous – experiments to establish Bystander Effect. For example, they asked subjects to complete a written test under exam conditions with two other people in the room. Unbeknownst to the subject, the other two people are not other volunteers, but actors in the employ of the psychologists. While they are all taking the test, smoke gradually begins to enter and fill the room from a vent. The actors are paid to ignore the smoke and continue to take the test as if nothing is wrong. The experiment found that subjects who shared the room with the actors were significantly more likely to ignore the smoke than the control subjects who took the test alone (and tended to go for help, go out to ask about the smoke etc.)

A different experiment placed a number of subjects in individual booths that were connected by microphones and told them that they wanted to gather information about pressures faced by college students. They were told that the researchers would not be listening to the discussion at the beginning, to allow the students to get more comfortable before they began (actually to remove the obvious authority figure from the situation). One of the “subjects” (an actor) would stage an epileptic fit in the midst of the discussion, at a point where he had the mic, so that all the subjects could hear him (and none of them could hear each other.) The experimenters found that the subjects’ response to the event declined with the number of others they also believed to have heard it. For example, “eighty-five percent of the subjects who thought they alone knew of the victim’s plight reported the seizure … only 31% of those who thought four other by-standers were present did so”. (Bystander Intervention in Emergencies, Darley and Latane.)

The lessons of Bystander Effect for martial artists would seem to include at least these. First, don’t underestimate bystander effect on YOURSELF. Be aware that it is normal to feel more reluctance to intervene in a situation where there are many other bystanders, and that this natural tendency might be something that you consciously need to overcome, so that YOU are the person who speaks up, or who calls the police, or provides first aid, or who (where appropriate) intervenes physically. And second, be aware of the bystander effect on OTHER PEOPLE. Be realistic about the likely effects of things like shouting for help, setting off a car alarm or using a rape attack alarm – just because lots of people can hear you doesn’t mean that lots of people are going to help you. Be aware that if you are providing first aid after a fight or an accident, you may have to actually single someone out in the group of bystanders and say “YOU, call an ambulance and the police”, or “YOU, give me your coat”, since less specific requests for such things may receive less response.