Is More Really Merrier?

From infamous murder cases to everyday cyberbullying, many partake in bystander apathy, a behavior psychologists and neuroscientists continue to try to explain.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

It was 3:20 in the morning when Winston Moseley stabbed Catherine “Kitty” Genovese in Queens on March 13, 1964. Genovese’s screams for help went unanswered, and, following her murder, a sensationalized New York Times piece reported that though 37 neighbors in a nearby building heard her cries, not one of them interfered. Though such details had been exaggerated, it was true that only a few neighbors took action in response to her pleas for help. The indifference that many witnesses showed to the fatal stabbing frightened Americans, spurring anti-urbanist movements and driving the development of the 911 emergency response system.

Genovese quickly became a symbol of public apathy, sparking the theory of the bystander effect, a social phenomenon in which the likelihood of bystander interference during an emergency decreases with more bystanders. Decades of research followed the introduction of this theory, attempting to explore the mechanisms responsible for such dangerous behavior. Even after nearly 60 years, the bystander effect plays a significant role in many crimes.

For example, a recent stabbing case in New York on September 16, 2019, resulted in the death of 16-year-old Khaseen Morris. He was stabbed in the chest by Tyler Flach in broad daylight during a dispute that 50 high school students witnessed. Onlookers did little to help Morris, with some even filming the fight and uploading the footage to social media. The inaction shocked many, including NYPD Detective Lieutenant Fitzpatrick, who called the videos “egregious.”

The killings of Genovese and Morris are prime examples of the bystander effect. Princeton social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley postulated a five-step model that bystanders follow before intervening in an emergency: (1) register that an unusual occurrence is happening, (2) recognize the event as a problem, (3) feel responsible for helping resolve the situation, (4) plan how to interfere with the conflict, and (5) execute the course of action.

Of course, many bystanders don’t accomplish these steps. Several factors hinder bystanders from completing this model, which provides an explanation as to why most do not take action.

The diffusion of responsibility is most cited as the reason for the bystander effect. With an increasing number of bystanders present, each individual feels less of a need to take action. Guilt experienced from passiveness is also distributed amongst bystanders. A 1968 Latané and Darley experiment involved asking participants to complete a questionnaire about urban living in a room that was filled with smoke-like steam. 75 percent of lone participants reported the “smoke.” When working with two other participants, this number nearly halved—only 38 percent of participants responded that there was smoke in the room when working in groups of three.

The knowledge that others are witnessing the same emergency as themselves may also lead bystanders to assume that someone else would act. In another experiment by Latané and Darley, participants were placed in a room alone and instructed to talk with other participants over an intercom. One of these “participants” was a tape that played the sounds of a seizure and a call for help. 100 percent of participants who were told they were the only one talking with the “participant” reported the incident. When they were talking in groups of five, only 62 percent of participants reacted.

Theoretically, when bystanders notice an abnormal situation, they may identify it as an emergency and take action in response, no matter the reaction of other bystanders. However, in some instances, the ignorance of others prompts some to question their evaluation of a worrisome situation. Often, the inaction of others leads these people to conclude that the circumstance at hand is not an emergency and thus does not require their involvement.

Such a situation is called pluralistic ignorance. Another version of the smoky room experiment exemplifies this theory: when participants were placed in rooms with two confederates (research team members who pretended to be participants and ignored the smoke), only 10 percent of them reported the smoke. This was lower than the 38 percent of participants in rooms with two other real participants who reported the smoke. This discrepancy stems from the lack of response in the confederates: in the scenario with three participants in a room, only 38 percent of participants reacted due to their assumption that another had already taken action. But when one participant was surrounded by two confederates who did not even acknowledge the gas, the participant began to doubt him or herself, resulting in only 10 percent of the participants reporting smoke.

A look at neuroimaging provides us with clues as to why these different permutations of the bystander effect exist. Magnetic resonance imaging found that as the number of bystanders present in an emergency increases, decreased activity is observed in participants’ precentral gyrus, postcentral gyrus, and medial prefrontal cortex, regions of the brain associated with drawing conclusions about others’ desires, decision making, and predicting the outcomes of actions.

Additionally, an increase in functional coupling of the medial prefrontal cortex is observed in participants who helped in an emergency compared with participants who didn’t. The results of this study indicate that the medial prefrontal cortex may be responsible for interfering in emergencies.

Today, the documenting of violence on social media, where such content quickly attracts attention, further contributes to bystander apathy. Morris, for example, was stabbed and died as bystanders recorded him instead of coming to his aid. Onlookers, who may have otherwise helped Morris, did this in the hopes of garnering views on social media. Social media can also introduce the concept of digital bystanding, in which people online witness a crime but don’t take any action. The sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl in 2017 was streamed on Facebook Live with over 40 viewers, but none contacted the authorities.

Digital bystander apathy isn’t limited to being silent when presented with real-life emergencies shared online. Most social media users have witnessed, experienced, or perpetuated cyberbullying. While cyberbullying can inflict the same mental and emotional damage that in-person bullying can, it is far more normalized, presenting itself as comments on Instagram posts, duets to TikTok videos, or Twitter threads mocking people. As most users scroll through post after post, it is rare that they stop and make an effort to stand up for someone.

This effect, of course, applies to Stuyvesant students as well. Infamous for our usage of Facebook, we are no strangers to demeaning social media posts. So the next time you scroll past one of these posts, ask yourself if you want to fall into the same psychological pitfall as Genovese’s neighbors who closed their curtains on her.