Bystander Effect

Recently two innocuous incidents made me remember the controversy surrounding the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City. News reports indicated that 38 people were witnesses and did nothing. Subsequent investigations suggested that very few people actually saw the complete attack, that some who heard screams misinterpreted what they were, and that others did in fact call police. Whatever the exact facts, the Genovese killing is often cited as a prime example of Bystander Effect, a social psychological phenomenon where individuals are less likely to help a victim if other people are present. A policeman who was directing traffic before a Mariner’s game yelled at a crowd of us on the corner, “Someone hit the walk button!” He then said to the other cop, “You got a hundred people over there and no one hits the walk button.” The police could override the signals but presumably the walk light made their job easier and safer by causing a longer sequence for the heavy one way pedestrian traffic. It was hard to hear the cop above the traffic and loud conversations, so I had no idea if the people back near the walk button even heard him. No one tried to relay the message. If you have two people on a corner, both will likely press the button but with a hundred pedestrians, apparently no one will. Eventually we got a walk signal, reinforcing individual decisions to do nothing. At the bank, we all queued up behind one man at the door. Five minutes after opening time, no one did anything except get restless. Finally a bank employee peeked out and said, “The door is unlocked.” I wonder how long we would have waited behind that first guy, assuming he had tried or knew how to open the the door.

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