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Would You Jump In to Stop an Assault?

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Fear is not the only factor that determines whether bystanders act in such moments. Bibb Latané, a social psychologist who helped pioneer the field of bystander intervention in the years following the Kitty Genovese murder, described another dynamic at play: the diffusion of responsibility that can lead to inaction among strangers who witness a crime.

Professor Latané, along with the social psychologist John M. Darley, sought to replicate real-life emergencies through a series of lab experiments with people who did not know one another. The greater the number of onlookers, they found, the less likely people were to intervene. They also determined that strangers unconsciously took their cues from those around them, a concept known as social influence, and were less likely to intervene when others were similarly passive.

In an interview, Professor Latané said the theories that he and Mr. Darley had developed nearly five decades ago were frequently overlooked by those who cling to popular notions of the emotionally detached bystander. He said those sentiments were often fanned by the news media, which tends to publicize incidents in which witnesses failed to act while ignoring instances when onlookers intervened. “It’s the unusual event that makes it newsworthy,” he said. “It was never about apathy, it’s about social inhibition, and I’ve always thought it was unfair that New York was condemned for what happened to Genovese.”

More recent research that examines real-life interactions has called into question some of their earlier findings. The 2019 study by Professor Philpot, for one, found that a greater number of bystanders increased the prospects for intervention. In reviewing the surveillance footage, the researchers found that on average at least three people chose to act, and they determined that the presence of each additional bystander led to a 10 percent increase in the odds that a victim would receive help.

Although Professor Philpot said his research was not aimed at testing the bystander effect theory, the findings suggest that there is safety in numbers. “While the presence of more bystanders may reduce the likelihood that each single individual intervenes, it also provides a wider pool of potential help givers, thus boosting the overall likelihood that the victim receives help from at least someone,” he said.

Alan Berkowitz, an expert on the bystander effect and the author of “Response-Ability: A Complete Guide to Bystander Intervention,” said that other factors, including the race of the perpetrator or victim, could play an unconscious role in determining whether people help a stranger in need. “Research suggests that bystanders who, for instance, are white might not feel it’s worth their while getting involved in an incident involving two people of color, but they might feel more comfortable intervening in a fight between two white male executives,” said Dr. Berkowitz, a psychologist who runs workshops for college students, community groups and members of the military about ways to effectively intervene to prevent acts of violence and sexual assault. “Once you train yourself to become aware of these things, and you are trained to do interventions that are safe and effective, you become more comfortable acting on your desire to help.”

Some of those tactics include distracting the perpetrator, calling for help or finding a way to enlist other bystanders to intervene more collaboratively. “Talking to other bystanders is really important, because often we don’t know that others are also concerned,” he said.


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