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The Bystander Effect

The antidote: Be a hero.

You may be familiar with the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan: A man from the ancient city of Samaria sees another man lying in the road. Many people ignored the man and pass him by; but the Samaritan stops to help him. He followed The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Fast forward a couple of millennia, and countries such as Australia, Canada, Israel, the US, and others have adopted laws to protect people like the Good Samaritan who render aid to those who are injured, ill, in danger or incapacitated. The laws are intended to reduce bystanders’ hesitation to assist for fear of being sued or prosecuted for unintentional injury or wrongful death.

In a perfect world, we would all help one another in times of need. In the back of our minds, we may think, “I will do this because one day I may need help and I hope someone is there for me.” It is reciprocal altruism in action; help others now to get help for oneself someday.

But the Golden Rule is challenged on a daily basis. People in need of help don’t get the support they require. Instead, others avert their eyes, turn their heads, and pass quickly by.

This is known as The Bystander Effect or Bystander Apathy. That term was coined by social psychologists, John Darley and Bibb Latane, who were teaching in New York City in the 1960s when the now-infamous Kitty Genovese murder occurred there. Despite her screams for help to ward off her assailant, none of the many residents in her large apartment complex came to Kitty’s aid.

Would you help?

We’d all like to think that when we see something bad happening – a person injured in an accident or someone being assaulted – that we’d step forward to help. But in reality, most of us don’t; it’s inconvenient, or we don’t want to get involved, or we think someone else will stop to assist instead.

Although some people won’t take the initiative to help, they will take the time to photograph or take a video the event and post it on the internet. Interestingly, studies over the last 45 years have proven that the greater the number of people observing an emergency, the less likely they are to help. Why is this? What happened to The Golden Rule? And what can we do to be more involved?

Why we don’t help

One reason may be that when a situation is unclear, then we look to others for clues to define what is happening. We then make decisions based, sometimes incorrectly, on other people’s actions, reactions or lack of action.

This is known as pluralistic ignorance — when the group’s majority privately believes one thing and mistakenly assumes that most others believe the opposite. For instance, when we drive past a car accident, we might assume that someone else will call 9-1-1 or stop to help. Pluralistic ignorance occurs frequently and in diverse situations.

In her post, Why Don’t We Help? Less Is More, at Least When It Comes to Bystanders, Melissa Burkley shares the following examples:

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.”

Diffusion of responsibility

According to studies conducted by Darley and Latane, diffusion of responsibility is the second reason for the bystander effect. In their years of research, they discovered a paradox: that the greater the number of eyewitnesses, the less each witness felt responsible to help. The upshot is that if everyone assumes someone else will help, then no one does.

After interviewing study participants, Darley and Latane discovered that although their bystander subjects were by no means individually unsympathetic, they didn’t feel personally responsible enough to do anything. The participants did not think they were influenced by other bystanders to help or not; so evidence indicates we are unaware of the influence others have on our decision making. In fact, we are unaware of the unwritten social norm that silently emerges in those situations: Do Nothing.

Darley and Latane determined that the degree of responsibility a bystander feels depends on three things:

  • Whether or not they feel the person is deserving of help
  • The competence of the bystander
  • The relationship between the bystander and the victim

What we can do

If you and several fellow bystanders are in an emergency situation, remember your instinct — as well as the instinct of those around you — may be to not render aid. But by being aware of the diffusion of responsibility progression, you may take action because we are all responsible for helping the victim. Once anyone helps, then in seconds, others will join in because a new social norm emerges: Do Something Helpful. That is the power of one.

If you need assistance in helping someone, look a bystander straight in the eyes and tell them to help. Pleading to a specific individual will make that person feel responsible and there is a good chance they too will pitch in.

You can also take charge of the situation and delegate tasks. This lessens the diffusion of responsibility process. The same is true if you are the victim: Don’t yell "help!" Instead, ask particular people near you to do a specific thing. For instance, tell the bystander in the blue shirt to lift you up, and another holding her dog to call 911.

Heroic Imagination Project

I started the Heroic Imagination Project (HIP) to help teach individuals the skills and awareness needed to make effective decisions in challenging situations. Each of us is a hero-in-waiting who by learning some basic skills become Heroes-in-Training. We’ve developed a number of programs designed to be useful, to help people gain meaningful insights and tools to use every day that can transform negative situations and create positive change. We teach people of all ages how to be everyday heroes by standing up, speaking out, and taking wise and effective action. To learn more about the bystander effect and ways to counteract it, check out my non-profit Heroic Imagination Project.

Each of us has an inner hero we can draw upon in an emergency. If you think there is even a possibility that someone needs help, act on it. You may save a life. You are the modern version of the Good Samaritan that makes the world a better place for all of us.


Phil Zimbardo

For more in-depth information about how your life is affected by the mental time zones that you live in, please check out our books: The Time Cure and The Time Paradox.


Buckley, Melissa. Why Don’t We Help? Less Is More, at Least When It Comes to Bystanders. Psychology Today.

Darley, J. M. & Latané, B. (1968). "Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Darley, J. M., & Latane, B. (1970). The unresponsive bystander: why doesn't he help? New York, NY: Appleton Century Crofts.

Sommers, Sam. "Why Crowds Make Us Callous." Psychology Today.

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