Sunday, August 22, 2010

Bystander Effect in Real Time

The Bystander Effect (bystander apathy) has always intrigued and disturbed me. It is also known as the diffusion of responsibility. I always found this social behavior interesting because it demonstrates that the greater number of people around, especially in a large anonymous crowd, the less likely that any one of them will provide aid because the responsibility is diffused within the entire crowd, each assuming the other will take action; the sense of individual responsibility is decreased.

One of the most well-known cases that sparked the study of the bystander effect is that of Kitty Genovese who was murdered outside of her home in Queens, NY in 1964. It is reported that although neighbors of Genovese heard her cry for help, and one even called authorities, her injuries and the attack weren't given serious consideration. This has always disturbed me.

I witnessed this phenomenon while at the beach. A mother of five children realized that her 5 year old son was missing. I could see the panic and horror build in her as she looked frantically around the bodies of hundreds of people across an extensive stretch of beach. As her screams for her son and whether anyone had seen him increased, I began looking around for a little boy, but I also noticed other adults hardly moving besides the family I was with and another mother who had a child who apparently resembled the missing boy. Between the waves and the number of people on the beach, I couldn't help but worry about the safety of the boy. I proceeded to call 911 as the woman's husband ran down the beach searching; the mother was in complete disarray. Fortunately, the child was found several yards away from his family, but safe. Afterward, I noticed that the people around when the mother was panicking were basically standing around in the same positions, some even looking at the mother as if she had overreacted. They had hardly moved a muscle to even look around for the boy. This angered me because I cannot even imagine the horror of losing your child amongst hundreds of people in a natural environment that could be dangerous for not only a child, but even an adult.