Dissecting Bystander Apathy

Sometimes I wonder if there’s an RLSH alive that doesn’t know the Kitty Genovese story by heart.  When I taught Social Psychology, this story was a centerpiece in my group behavior component, as was my own “Genovese Experience.”
Phoenix, Arizona has a tradition, it seems in welcoming new residents to its warm embrace.  It seems that everyone I know who has moved here found themselves in an auto collision within a few months of setting down roots.  Perhaps it’s a form of initiation, but my family and I were no exception.
My wife was driving our smallish Toyota Corolla though an intersection when a Bronco pulled out of a gas station on the corner and stopped directly in front of us.  She slammed on her brakes and cranked her steering wheel, but we didn’t stop in nearly enough time.   When a Corolla collides with a Bronco, it’s easy to determine the winner.  Our poor car became a large metal accordion with screaming children in the back seat.  Ever choleric, my wife immediately leapt from her side of the car to confront the other driver.
The children were screaming and, twisting about, I saw that they were each bleeding from the area of their eyes.  I tried the door on my side of the car, but it wouldn’t open.  I called out to my wife.
“Honey!  Call 911”
She kept screaming at the other driver instead.
“Honey!  The kids are bleeding from the eyes!  Call 911 now!”
My wife, ever relentless, began to scream at the other driver about how our children are now bleeding from the eyes.
It was then that I realized that we had drawn a crowd.  Accidents almost always draw quite a bit of attention.  This one was no exception.  There were approximately 10 or 12 people standing near the intersection, staring with intense interest and doing nothing to help.


It’s not that people don’t want to help,  I told my class, it’s just that the situation dictates that they do nothing!
People most often determine their behavior in groups by a few basic rules:  Social referencing, efficacy, and diffusion of responsibility. I remembered saying, Let’s take a look at a few of these.
I started writing up on the board…

  • Diffusion of Responsibility:  People generally want to help.  They really do.  However, they don’t want to step on one another’s toes in the process.  If someone else is going to do it, who am I to get in the way?
  • Efficacy: People like to feel competent.  Often, they won’t help if they don’t know what to do to help or if they feel that it’s not in their competence to do so.
  • Social Referencing:  Probably the cornerstone of conformity, we tend to do what others around us are doing.  In doing so, we learn what behavior is appropriate in which situation.

The bad news, folks, is that when Kitty was being stabbed, each person was thinking that the next person would do something, everyone silently watched—which established a norm via social referencing, and no one seemed to feel as if they could safely intervene.  One person who did consider calling the police felt that she would get in trouble, as she was an undocumented immigrant.
The good news is that this can be remedied.  All that needs to be done is for someone in the observing crowd to be assigned the responsibility of some simple, helpful task that should be well within his or her competency.  As soon as he or she does this, in theory, social referencing dictates that others will follow suit and help on their own.


I looked back out at the crowd of bystanders.  Ignoring my wife, I pointed at the most salient person in the group.
“You!”  I shouted.  “Call 911!”
The young man’s glazed stare changed quickly as he blinked away his socially induced apathy.  A light seemed to come on in his eyes and he nodded quickly and sprinted off.
I never saw him again.
I set my sights on another person.
“You!” I pointed at a young woman in the crowd. “Do you have a cell phone?”
She nodded, already digging in her purse.
“Please! Call 911 now!”
She nodded again and began dialing.  Everyone else fell into roles like well-placed pieces in a puzzle.  One man ran into the gas station and bought water bottles for my children and a young lady used handkerchiefs and bottled water to wash the blood from my children’s faces to reveal very small cuts above their eyes.
One thoughtful gentleman suggested that I climb out of the car on my wife’s side.  I felt a little silly then.
Soon, the ambulances arrived and my children were in much more calm spirits thanks to the aid of the not-quite-apathetic bystanders.
Bystander apathy is indeed endemic to the human condition.  However, it can be countered with some very simple techniques.