What Would You Do? A Take on the Bystander Effect


It seems like a normal Saturday night at the Canal Street subway station...

It seems like a normal Saturday night at the Canal Street subway station. You’re on a fairly populated, well-lit platform when a man and a woman walk by. Only she’s crying and pleading for help, and he’s got a knife to her throat.

“WHAT THE F*** ARE YOU LOOKING AT?” the man asked as I stared in shock when this happened about a week ago. Seconds later, he was yanking her up the stairs and 20 or so of us remained on the platform doing nothing.

But why is that? How can we can see a victim and simply stand idly by?  I talked to friends and classmates about it afterwards and most people responded, “but I would do something!”

Yet, when the time comes, especially when others are around, the average person does nothing.

This is due to what is known as “the bystander effect.” It has been proven through numerous psychological studies that the probability of helping is directly linked to how many people are witnessing the situation. The more bystanders (onlookers who don’t get involved) there are, the less likely one is to intervene. Another finding is that the more the bystanders know about the victim, the better the odds that they will step up.

The most well-known case of the bystander effect is the 1964 sexual assault and murder of Kitty Genovese who was attacked by a serial rapist/murderer in front of her building. After almost 30-minutes of attack with Genovese screaming and pleading for help, one of her neighbors called out to the man from his window telling him to leave her alone. This caused the  killer to flee the scene, only to return to finish the attack after 10 minutes, during which time no one had after no one had helped the wounded woman.

There were 38 witnesses to the brutality, and the only intervention was one neighbor from his window.

It seems that although it is a societal norm to help others when they are in need, when a serious situation arises in public, people don’t act. There needs to be education about the bystander effect, and how to act in situations like the two above to help. This has been largely successful in school anti-bullying campaigns, where students are taught how to be ACTIVE bystanders. Local governments and victims' rights organizations should undertake similar campaigns. People like me need to know what to do to help victims of violence taking place before our eyes.

I got to street level where I had phone service to call 911, but the two were out of sight by then. Knowing that the woman saw us all do nothing to help her as she tried to get away and the uncertainty about what happened to her that night are still haunting to me. I would like to think that if I were ever in a similar situation, an onlooker would do something to help. But that won’t happen unless we recognize the barrier of the bystander effect.

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