Bakari Akil II, Ph.D.

Bakari Akil II Ph.D.

Communication Central

What to Do When No One’s Doing Anything

How not to be a bystander in an emergency

Posted May 16, 2016

Recently, in the city of Philadelphia, a man was recorded beating and punching a woman, mercilessly, for over 20 minutes. The incident was recorded by a man who wanted to remain anonymous, but talked with Fox News about the crime. In his recording you can see a few people filming the assault with their cell phones and people wandering in and out of frame as the man straddles over the woman, raining down blows, as if in a Mixed Martial Arts match. One or two people seem concerned, but unsure of what to do. Others are talking and laughing, while many are silently watching the violent spectacle as if in shock. The man who supplied the recording to the news station stated that the police had already been called and he did not ¨... want to jump in and be a hero and just get hurt.¨ He said, ¨You know, it's bad out here.¨

In an interview with FOX News 29, anchors talk with psychologist Frank Farley who brings up many salient points in reference to the incident and suggests why people did not intervene. He references the idea that people may have thought it was a domestic dispute and even police officers fear answering the call for domestic situations. He also reasons that many people may fear intervening because the aggressor may have a gun. Yet, his strongest point deals with Bystander Effect Theory. The Bystander Effect takes place when you have many people witnessing an emergency or crisis event and assume that since so many people are around, someone else will handle the situation. As Dr. Farley mentioned, the concept of Diffusion of Responsibility is at work as people often will assume others will step forward.

The psychologists behind Bystander Effect, Bibb Latané and John Darley, famous for their theory on what happened to Kitty Genovese when she was attacked viciously in a very public space and received no help, ran experiments testing people's reactions in emergency situations. One involved having a group of 72 students participate in a study where they were supposed to discuss issues involving college freshmen moving into a new city environment. Each person was housed in a booth and the participants could not see each other while speaking or listening. What the students did not know was that a person had been planted by the researchers to fake experiencing a seizure.

The results were startling. When a person was alone with the person faking the seizure, 85 percent of the time the participant left the room and notified someone. However, when there were four participants in the room, someone leaving and notifying staff dropped down to 31 percent.

Not surprisingly, many people are aware of the Bystander Effect or the idea that people will freeze or go into shock when observing someone being attacked or having a medical emergency. Life experience, books discussing the Bystander Effect by authors such as Malcolm Gladwell or shows such as ¨What Would You Do?¨ with John Quinones have demonstrated that usually only one person (or none), will respond when our societal agreements state we should.

However, my purpose in writing this article is to talk about what can be done to move people toward action when everyone around seems frozen in place.

Take the Lead

First, you have to assume that since no has stepped forward, then you are in control. That means you have to address the situation. Second, once you take the lead, then you must start giving instructions to people around you. For instance, you can say, ¨You, in the brown suit, call the police!¨ You in the red t-shirt and you in the green tank top, help me move this heavy object!¨ This snaps people out of their lethargy or voyeuristic trance and gets them to react. 

Even shouting out to an aggressor that the police are on the way or a loud ¨Stop!¨ can often jolt a violent person to his or her senses or influence others to start shouting out as well.

Final Thoughts

In many instances where people are suffering from a crisis or a medical emergency once someone steps forward and begins to help, others usually respond in kind. By taking action or in some cases daring to act we can often make a huge difference.

(Here is the video to Latané and Darley's smoke filled room study with similar results.)


News Staff (May 15, 2016).  Video shows woman being beaten while

   crowd watches. Retrieved May 15, 2016 from , FOX 29 WTXF Web


Staff. Latané and Darley. Retrieved May 15, 2016 from ,  Web


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