Breaking the Bystander Effect

I was moments from sleep last night, I could feel my thoughts slowing, slipping into a dream when suddenly, out of the cricket-chirps and rustling leaves came a scream. “AHHHHH, AHHHH, AHHHHHHHHHH,” I heard. Exactly like that, over and over again.

I ran to my window and listened for a second, then another, before thinking, “one of the neighbors must have heard this and called the police.” On my way back to bed I froze, as the second thought entered my head, “bystander effect.”

Quickly as I could I sprinted to my parents room, woke my mother (in my panicked state I had no idea what else to do), and watched nervously as she called the police who were on the scene in moments – unfortunately, just seconds before, the screaming that had been a constant for the last three minutes finally ceased to an uneasy, abrupt silence.

I went to sleep feeling guilty at my slow reaction time – but proud that at least I had done something. That person who’s screams I heard at least had a chance of being helped because of something I had remembered from a Social Psychology class, something that had stirred me to action. Bystander effect.

The term bystander effect refers to the phenomenon in which the greater the number of people present, the less likely people are to help a person in distress.

In Social Psychology we were told about Kitty Genovese:

1aOn Friday, March 13, 1964, 28-year-old Genovese was returning home from work. As she approached her apartment entrance, she was attacked and stabbed by a man later identified as Winston Moseley.

Despite Genovese’s repeated cries for help, none of the dozen or so people in the nearby apartment building who heard her cries called police for help. The attack first began at 3:20 AM, but it was not until 3:50 AM that someone first contacted police.

Kitty’s murder inspired Social Psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latane to run a series of experiments that found a correlation between the number of people witnessing an emergency situation, and the likelihood of someone taking action to remedy the situation – the more people we perceive as witnessing an emergency, the less likely we are to act.

But why? Darley and Latane believed it had something to do with diffusion of responsibility – or the idea that someone else (in my case, one of my neighbors) will take responsibility for the situation, so we don’t have to.  This logic leads to disaster when we fail to realize that, to the other people witnessing this situation, we are that “someone else” who is expected to take action.

I almost fell victim to it, don’t let bystander effect happen to you!


  1. If you know what to do, do it. Just being aware of the existence of the Bystander Effect makes you far more likely to be able to break free of it. (Just look at what happened to me!) Don’t let fear take over, don’t assume someone else knows what they’re doing better than you – just act. (The good news is, if you take the first step, people are likely to see you taking actions to help and break through their hesitation as well. Its much easier to jump in to a situation when you’re not taking the first step.)
  2. If you don’t know what to do or can’t do it yourself, be directive. Calling people out as individuals breaks them from the group mentality and reminds them of their own personal responsibility. If at all possible call people by name (like, “Anna, quick go call 911!“) or by an identifiable characteristic (“You in the green shirt, quick, he needs help!“)
  3. You could always try yelling “BYSTANDER EFFECT” (although I don’t recommend this as a first resort) and hope that someone else remembers Latane and Darley well enough to understand what you’re saying and be spurred into thought. (If you do this let me know – I have a Social Psych professor who is interested in how this works as a method!)

The bottom line is just do something because somebody has to be the “somebody else” who takes that first step!

The story does have a happy ending, or an embarrassing ending (if you’re me.) The next morning, when I asked my father anxiously for an update – had we heard anything, had they found anyone? – he informed me that he’d heard the same screams, the night before I had… they weren’t human.

barn_owlI refused to believe him, that is, until my friend Jess jumped on Google and played a barn owl call for me. “AHHH, AHHHH, AHHHHH…” AHA! It all made sense – the  uniform nature of the “screams”, the complete lack of words, the fact that the “screams” even took place at all (I was surprised, at the time, that the person’s mouth had not been covered as this attack scene unfolded in my head), the way the “screams” ended abruptly, rather than fading out like someone in pain… it all made sense.

A faster reaction from me wouldn’t have changed a thing, all the cops would have found was a very loud owl … but the lesson still stands because if that had been someone in trouble my mom would have been the only one who called for help: bystander effect.

I don’t think they ever did find the owl.

* Click the owl to hear an approximation of what I heard last night!

15 thoughts on “Breaking the Bystander Effect

  1. Thank you so much for your post — I have created a project around bystander behavior and actually travel the country speaking about it to college campuses. My website is somewhat under development but take a look. Really inspiring post!

  2. re: the barn owl voice – I once heard a vixen’s mating call and thought someone was being raped or something; as it happened, I was with a wildlife expert who told me that it was something else, but otherwise I’d have been trying to figure out where the screams were coming from and gone to help. But that was a situation where there was no bystander effect in operation (it being late at night and just the two of us on a moonlit walk through the countryside).

    On the bystander effect – I like to think I’m immune to it because of having practised in my mind “what would I do if…?” but I’m probably kidding myself. On the other hand, the times where I think I have faced it was when I saw dogs who were tied up in the street and worried that they might have been abandoned. I was ready to call out anyone I could (try the number on the tag, then the animal rescue people or the police or something).

    But social conformity and peer pressure is seriously scary in its power in some situations, and I don’t think anyone is immune to it completely.

  3. I once drove past a man lying dead in the middle of the freeway, presumably run over. I got home and called the cops, and that was the first they’d heard of it, despite the fact that all the cars in front of me had switched lanes to avoid hitting his corpse. Bystander Effect is hella real!

  4. Thanks for the comments everyone :) It really is amazing the sounds that come from nature! This may be TMI but I used to get so scared when I was little (like five or six) by these horrendous noises I heard outside my window. I now know that it was cats (my neighbor has many outdoor cats) mating in the woods (an experience that is, apparently, painful for the female -causing her to yowl). The owl incident reminded me of those scary nights… I wish I could remember how my parents explained that one to me at the time!

    And Lauren – thats such a sad, crazy story. I’ve heard so many stories like yours in my psych classes and on the news (does anyone remember the woman who died in the hospital emergency room around a year ago because no one stopped to help her? Crazy.) Thank you for doing the right thing and calling the police!

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  6. Pingback: Being an active bystander « The Gender Blender Blog

  7. Thank you Jill for your words on the Bystander effect. I am impressed that you had some solutions to offer people to stop this social problem. So many times people talk about it and do not offer a solution or a form of solution. I am an optimist too and I believe there is always a solution.
    P.S. I just wrote a blog note about the bystander effect located at to keep spreading the word to stop it.

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  9. Pingback: Real Life » Blog Archive » Kick-Ass: A Response to the Bystander Effect

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  11. Please let me know if you’re looking for a author for your weblog. You have some really good posts and I think I would be a good asset. If you ever want to take some of the load off, I’d absolutely love to write some material for your blog in exchange for a link back to mine. Please send me an email if interested. Cheers!

  12. Check your mail Odessa! (Actually, strike that… can you e-mail me directly? Gmail is telling me that your e-mail doesn’t exist!)

    (Side-note to anyone interested in posting on Imagine Today: just shoot me an e-mail at and we can talk about what you’d like to contribute!)

  13. Pingback: Real Life | Blog | Kick-Ass: A Response to the Bystander Effect » Real Life

  14. very inspiring :) bystander effect was the first thing I studied in psych class :) thanks for sharing it in a friendly tone.. So nice to know this article can get the message conveyed in such a friendly but serious (?) way too :)

    keep writing :)

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