Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Exploring the Volunteer's Dilemma

Why are people reluctant to help in an emergency?

When Kitty Genovese was brutally attacked and killed on March 13, 1964, the news shocked the world. Not because of the murder itself but because 38 of her neighbours had reportedly watched the killing but did nothing. According to the New York Times article describing what happened, "Twice the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead."

Later investigations would show that very few of the 38 neighbours who had heard some part of the attack were really aware of what was going on (many thought it was just a lovers' quarrel). Still, the idea that Kitty Genovese's murder was fully observed by numerous neighbours who "didn't want to get involved" quickly took on a life of its own.

Headlines about the callous, unfeeling New Yorkers who ignored Kitty Genovese's dying screams led to wide-scale soul-searching over declining social values and the dangers of urban life. Television movies, books, and plays based on the Genovese murder would play up the unfeeling neighbour angle and spurred the passage of "bad samaritan" laws in some jurisdictions (with limited success).

Kitty Genovese's murder also inspired psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley to launch a series of classic experiments investigating bystander intervention in emergencies. Using New York University students, they investigated factors that seemed to increase the likelihood of bystanders helping in different simulated emergencies. These ranged from a simple theft to hearing cries of distress from an adjoining room.

In a finding that they would later term the bystander effect, Darley and Latane found that individuals were slower to respond as the number of others that the participants thought were present increased. Participants who were alone in a room during the simulated emergency were far more likely to respond and response time was significantly slower in group ranging from two to six participants in size.

Latane and Darley explained this phenomenon (which they termed diffusion of responsibility) by arguing that people often looked to the people around them to see how they react to the emergency. If other bystanders seem unconcerned, then people are less likely to react (their term for this was pluralistic ignorance). Participants often found themselves in a classic approach-avoidance conflict (another of those pesky social psychology terms) in which they were torn between a desire to act and not wanting to appear foolish by jumping to conclusions.

To reduce the apathy that seems to come with being bystanders, researchers have proposed a basic model to increase the likelihood of acting in emergency:

  1. notice the incident,
  2. interpret it as an emergency,
  3. decide on level of personal responsibility to intervene,
  4. carry out the required behaviour.

This model has become a standard feature in most first aid courses today.

While there is some controversy surrounding the Latane-Darley findings, including the failure by later researchers to replicate these results consistently, the bystander effect has become one of the most well-recognized concepts in modern psychology. And it extends far beyond how people behave in an emergency. In just about any group situation requiring one person to step forward to accomplish something necessary, there is often a delay while members of the group decides who will be the volunteer who will act. This is referred to as the volunteer's dilemma and it is a common scenario in game theory.

In the volunteer's dilemma, a mutually beneficial outcome will result from one person doing a relatively unpleasant task while the others simply benefit without doing anything. This means that each member of the group needs to decide on whether to be the one to step forward or not. This can be anything from providing first aid to repairing a clogged drain but it's still a responsibility that people would prefer to avoid if they can.

Since there is no added benefit for the volunteer carrying out the task, there is no real incentive for acting since everyone else benefits as well. In the worst case scenario, everybody ends up suffering because the task in question doesn't get done. When it comes to tasks that needs to be repeated time and again, such as household chores, the solution tends to be simple (usually) with all members of the group setting up a schedule to avoid any one person doing more than necessary.

But what if the task is something unexpected? Much like the bystander effect, the time needed to decide on who will volunteer rises depending on how many volunteers there are in the group .If there are only two volunteers, then it quickly devolves into a game of "you do it, no you do it" (a familiar enough scenario in real life). John Forbes Nash, of "A Beautiful Mind" fame, developed the Nash equilibrium solution which, among other things, can be applied to the volunteer's dilemma and demonstrates that the likelihood that at least one person volunteering drops in direct proportion to how many people are there are in the group.

Of course, there are other factors that can increase the chances that someone will step up and take responsibility. If one person in the group has specialized training on how to respond in an emergency, that person will be more likely to respond. The volunteer's dilemma only applies when all volunteers are equally capable of doing what has to be done and it often highlights the problems faced by volunteer-run organizations that can't seem to get enough people interested in doing worthwhile activities.

The choice of being a "free rider" who takes advantage of other volunteers while avoiding any unpleasant work becomes surprisingly easy for many people. Which means tragedies like the Kitty Genovese murder might be more common than you might think.

So spare a thought to the bystander effect and the volunteer's dilemma the next time you find yourself in a situation with others agonizing over who will do something. Sometimes, all it takes is one person willing to act when nobody else will.

More from Romeo Vitelli Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Romeo Vitelli Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today