Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Why Do We Help Less When There Is a Crowd?

Less is more when it comes to bystanders.

 help-153094_1280, Pixabay/OpenClipart-Vectors
Source: help-153094_1280, Pixabay/OpenClipart-Vectors

On Oct. 24, 2009, as many as 20 witnesses watched as a 15-year-old girl was brutally assaulted and raped outside a homecoming dance in Richmond, CA. The viciousness of the attack was shocking, but what was even more shocking was the fact that so many people witnessed the attack and yet failed to intervene or call police. As one of the police officers involved in the case states, "what makes it even more disturbing is the presence of others. People came by, saw what was happening and failed to report it." Some of the bystanders reportedly even laughed and took photos of the assault with their cell phones.

How could people just stand by and watch something this horrible happen to a young, innocent girl? Some have suggested that the eyewitnesses' failure to report the incident likely resulted from a concern over being labeled as a snitch. Although this is possible, social psychological research on the bystander effect suggests a different cause—there were too many eyewitnesses present. The bystander effect refers to the fact that people are less likely to offer help when they are in a group than when they are alone. Research on this effect was inspired by a real-world account that seems hauntingly similar to the recent event in Richmond.

In 1964, 28 year old Kitty Genovese was raped and stabbed to death in front of her apartment complex. The attack lasted over 30 minutes and was witnessed by several dozen people who failed to report the incident. Some failed to realize that an actual crime was going on, claiming they thought it was a "lover's quarrel", whereas others realized they were witnessing a crime, but failed to report it because they assumed that someone else had already called the police. A similar incident took place in New Bedford, MA, in 1983 when several men raped a woman on a pool table in front of several witnesses in a bar. The 1988 film "The Accused" depicted this incident and Jodie Foster went on to earn an Academy Award for her performance as the rape victim. More recently, a 22 year old college student died from water intoxication in 2005 when four of his fellow fraternity brothers failed to intervene during a deadly hazing incident.

To determine the underlying reasons why these witnesses failed to help, John Darley and Bibb Latane conducted a series of lab experiments to examine how the presence of others influences people's helping behavior in an emergency situation. The results of these studies suggest there are two clear reasons why the eyewitnesses in the Richmond case may have failed to help.

1. Pluralistic Ignorance
One of the first steps in anyone's decision to help another is the recognition that someone is actually in need of help. To do this, the bystander must realize that they are witnessing an emergency situation and that a victim is in need of assistance. Consequently, a major reason why eyewitnesses fail to intervene is that they do not even realize they are witnessing a crime. When we are in an ambiguous situation and we are not sure whether there is an emergency or not, we often look to others to see how they are reacting. We assume that others may know something that we don't, so we gauge their reactions before we decide how we will respond. If those around us are acting as if it is an emergency, then we will treat it like an emergency and act accordingly. But if those around us are acting calm, then we may fail to recognize the immediacy of the situation and therefore fail to intervene.

For example, imagine you are at the community pool and you see a child splashing wildly in the water. Your first instinct would probably be to look around you and see how others are responding. If others appear shocked and are yelling for help, you may conclude that the child is drowning and dive in to help. But, if those around you are ignoring the child or laughing, you may conclude that they child is just playing around. To avoid looking foolish, you would probably just continue watching and would fail to dive in and help. This seems like a reasonable approach and for the most part, it prevents us from making a fool out of ourselves. But the problem is that this tendency to look to others in order to determine how to respond can be biased by a phenomenon known as pluralistic ignorance. Pluralistic ignorance describes a situation where a majority of group members privately believe one thing, but assume (incorrectly) that most others believe the opposite.

For example, pluralistic ignorance explains why my undergraduate students often fail to ask questions in class. Let's say that one of my students is confused about the class material I just covered and wants to ask me to clarify. Before raising her hand, she will likely look around to room to see if any of her fellow students seem confused or have their hand up as well. If no one else looks puzzled, she will conclude that she is the only one in the room that didn't get the material. To avoid looking stupid, she may choose to keep her hand down and not ask me her question. But as a teacher, I have discovered that if one student is unsure about the material, odds are most of the students are. So in this situation, my class is suffering from pluralistic ignorance because each one assumes they are the only one confused, when in fact all the students are confused and all of them are incorrectly concluding that they are the only one. The same process can occur when we witness an ambiguous emergency situation. All the bystanders may look to each other to determine if they are witnessing a crime, and if no one reacts, then everyone will wrongly conclude that this is not an emergency and no one will step up and help. The fact that several of the eyewitnesses in the Richmond case were laughing and taking photos with their cell phones suggests that they simply failed to realize they were witnessing a brutal rape and instead may have thought it was a prank.

In one of Darley and Latane's classic studies, they tried to recreate this phenomenon in the lab. For their study, they had participants complete a questionnaire and after a few minutes, smoke started to pour into the room underneath a door in the back. Some participants were the only one in the room when this happened, but for others, there were two other students completing questionnaires in the room as well. In actuality, these two "students" were working for the researchers and were instructed to keep calm not matter what happens. The key question in this study was would the participant notice the smoke and go get help or would they simply write it off as nothing concerning and continue working on their questionnaire. The result showed that when the participant was alone, 75% of them left to report the smoke. But when there were two other people in the room who remained calm, only 10% left to get help. In some cases, the smoke got so thick the participant could barely read the questionnaire in front of them! Yet, as long as their fellow bystanders remained in calm, they did as well. Thus, when we are alone, we are more likely to assume an ambiguous situation represents and emergency and act accordingly. When we are in the presence of other bystanders, we are likely to look to those others for guidance and if they are not responding or are laughing or are taking photos of the event, we will mistakenly conclude it is not an emergency and will fail to help.

So we know that one reason why people fail to help is because they don't realize they are witnessing a crime, but how can we use this information to our advantage? First, if you find yourself in an ambiguous situation, resist the urge to look to others and go with your gut instinct. If you think there is even a possibility that someone is in need, act on it. At worst, you will embarrass yourself for a few minutes, but at best, you will save a life. Second, if you are unfortunate enough to find yourself the victim and are in need of help, make sure you make it clear to those around you that this is an emergency situation. For instance, self-defense instructors will often tell women that if they are being attacked by a man, they should yell out "fire" instead of "help". This is because the word "help" is used in many situations that are non-life-threatening so when we hear it, it does not automatically indicate that there is an emergency. On the other hand, we only scream the word "fire" when there is an actual fire, and in some cases it is illegal to yell this word when there is not an actual fire (e.g., in a crowded theater). So by yelling "fire," you immediately make everyone around you aware that they are in an emergency situation.

2. Diffusion of Responsibility
Even if people recognize that they are witnessing a crime, they may still fail to intervene if they do not take personal responsibility for helping the victim. The problem is that the more bystanders there are, the less responsible each individual feels. When you are the only eyewitness present, 100% of the responsibility for providing help rests on your shoulders. But if there are five eyewitnesses, only 20% of the responsibility is yours. The responsibility becomes defused or dispersed among the group members. In these situations, people may assume that someone else will help or that someone else is better qualified to provide assistance. But if everyone assumes this, then no one will intervene. Darley and Latane also investigate this phenomenon in a lab study.

Specifically, they had participants take part in a group discussion over an intercom system. Some participants talked one-on-one over the intercom with another person and some talked over the intercom with a group of 5 other people. During the discussion, one of the voices on the intercom stated they were having a seizure and called out for help. In actuality, this was a prerecorded voice. For those who were led to believe they were the only person who overheard the seizure, 85% sought help. But for those who thought they were one of six people who overheard the seizure, only 31% sought help. So even when we are aware that an emergency is occurring, we are still less likely to help if other bystanders are present. So what about these people who overheard the seizure and didn't help? Were they just indifferent? Follow up interviews at the end of the study suggested that they were in fact concerned. Most mentioned overhearing the seizure, many had trembling hands and were clearly shaken from the experience and several inquired as to whether the victim finally received help. This tells us that they were not indifferent or heartless; they were concerned but simply didn't feel responsible enough to do anything about it. Interestingly, the researchers also asked if the participants thought that the presence of other bystanders affected their decision to get help or not and the most said it did not. So even though the presence of others clearly affects our helping behavior, we are unaware of this influence.

So once again, how can we use the knowledge garnered from this study to our advantage? First, if you find yourself in an emergency situation with several fellow bystanders, realize that your first instinct (and the first instinct of those around you) will be to deny responsibility for helping the victim. By simply being aware of the diffusion of responsibility process, it may snap you out of the biased way of thinking and cause you to realize that you and everyone present is each 100% responsible for helping the victim. Second, if you find yourself in need of help, it is up to you to actively make one of your eyewitnesses feel personally responsible for your well-being. When we are in need of help and there is a crowd watching, we often plead for help to anyone that is listening, thinking that at least one person will step up to intervene. But self-defense instructors advise that you instead pick one person out of the crowd, look them dead in the eye, and tell that one person you need help. By pleading to a specific individual, you suddenly make that person feel completely responsible for your safety and this increases the odds that they will help. The same technique can be used if you are trying to get several others to help you assist a victim. Point to one person and tell them to go get help; point to another and tell them to call 911. Giving specific instructions to specific people counteracts the diffusion of responsibility process.

We typically think that the more people who witness a crime, the more people there will be to help the victim, but these classic social psychology experiments call this assumption into question. By making yourself and others aware of the factors that lead to such bystander apathy, we can hopefully make events like those that occurred in Richmond, CA and Bedford, MA a thing of the past.

More from Psychology Today

More from Melissa Burkley Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today