Have you ever wondered how it is that people just don’t get involved in certain situations often when you think that they would? What’s going on? Hopefully, this article will offer you some insights as to reasons behind people’s lack of desire to get involved.

A tragic event occurred in New York in 1964 to a lady called Kitty Genovese. She was attacked by a gang but managed to escape their initial onslaught only for the gang to pursue her and tragically kill her. Extraordinarily, Kitty’s attack was witnessed by a large number of bystanders who appeared to do nothing towards stopping the attack on Kitty.

This was reported on by the newspapers and media in general as a terrible indictment on society that someone could be attacked and yet no one came to her rescue. Apathy, a lack of care for mankind were offered as reasons to explain this passive response from the people watching and so serous was the concern that a film was even made of the tragedy called The Screams of Kitty Genovese.

However, for psychologists Latané and Darley they were not persuaded that ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ was the cause and they suspected that others reasons may account for the response of the crowd. They reported their fascinating findings in their published research: ‘Ten Years of Research on Group Size and Helping’, 1981.

In order to investigate whether another explanation could be offered for the crowd’s actions they set about devising a series of experiments. To date their findings have been replicated many times over. In one experiment they enacted a fake seizure on a person in the street. What they found was that 85% of people witnessing the seizure when they were the only person offered to help but when there were five or more people witnessing only 30% of people would help. In the next experiment they moved the event indoors. In a mock setup smoke was allowed to enter a room and they recorded the percentages of people who reported the incident to the relevant authorities. Once more similar findings resulted. When there was only one person in the room when smoke entered 75% of the people reported the event but when there were three or more people present the percentage dropped to 38%.

This remarkable trend has happened many times over with experiments resulting in the same conclusions: whenever there is a large number of people present the percentage of people who ‘get involved’ drops considerably. Conversely, the fewer people present the higher the percentage of subsequent involvement.

Possible Reasons

Psychologists have pondered possible reasons for this apparent contradiction in logic and have concluded the following:

  1. On your own we don’t want to be the one who didn’t get involved and simply ‘walked away’. The burden of responsibility rests solely with us when we’re on our own. Perhaps this is guilt that is the driving force and we feel compelled to ‘step up to the mark’. It could also be self-preservation too since it might be us who’s next! The likelihood of us getting involved in this situation is therefore considerably higher.
  2. However, what if there are a lot of people with us? We have to decide against so many choices and we will often choose to react how everyone else is reacting. An incredibly strong desire exists within us to be like everyone else: the Goal of Affiliation. In general we will act, say, not say etc in accordance with the ways others are behaving around us. We will ask ourselves questions such as,”What are they [everyone watching] doing? What reasons are there for them doing / not doing what they are doing?” and we will often rapidly decide, “If they’re not doing I’m not.” In other words it’s not because we don’t care about what’s happening; rather, because they aren’t getting involved there must be plausible reasons for that decision (e.g. it’s a stunt and there might be cameras!; or it’s not safe; or they’ve been told not to etc…) and therefore we decide that we won’t get involved either.

So, what to do?

Let us hope that we should ever be in a situation where critical help is needed but what should you do if this happens and there’s a crowd around you watching? Somehow we need to diffuse what is known as the Bystander Effect (a large group of people all following what each other is doing) and get involvement from the people and come to our rescue. A strategy that appears to have success is to isolate someone in the crowd and specifically ask that person to help us. The isolated person is more likely to act like situation 1 referred to above and get involved for you. If you can isolate someone who looks friendly and concerned all the better. Tell this person exactly what to do. This decisive and clear action will probably overcome their influence to remain ‘part of the crowd’.

In a work context I don’t have any research to validate my thoughts but I wonder if this might work. When talking to a ‘crowd’ in a business meeting and asking for volunteers don’t be surprised if no one offers help! Perhaps reducing the Bystander Effect can work here as well? Ask, “John, I wonder if you could help me. [Generally, we like helping people especially when we’ve been identified as the possible means to the ‘solution’.] Could you… [fill in the details] for me? Thanks so much, John.”

Whatever the situation seek to reduce the Bystander Effect and we should see an increase in involvement for us.

I would be fascinated to hear of your findings in work or social contexts. Please do comment on this blog with your thoughts and findings. Perhaps we can be part of a fascinating social experiment not yet undertaken?