The Apathetic Bystander Experiment

Philip Kelley
The Apathetic Bystander Experiment

Imagine that someone is walking down a public road and suddenly a robber jumps at you, steals your wallet and leaves you lying on the ground. What do you think the reaction of passersby would be? Surely to help the robbed person if he has suffered a mishap, call the police or shout to alert about the thief. Some intrepid would even run after the robber trying to hold him back. Or at least that is what we would like to think. However, something unexpected can also happen: absolutely nothing. Unfortunately, citizen passivity in the face of events that require human solidarity is a fact, especially in the most crowded and industrialized cities. Today it is common to observe how dozens of people walk impassively around someone who needs help, without reacting or responding to these events and science has investigated this through different studies. Today we talk about one of them: the apathetic spectator experiment.


  • The tragic event that triggered the experiment
  • An investigation about it
  • The bystander effect
    • Links of interest

The tragic event that triggered the experiment

In 1964, a terrible event happened in New York that still continues to fill people who hear about it with frustration and astonishment. It's about the murder of the young Kitty Genovese.

Kitty Genovese was arriving at her Queens apartment when suddenly a man named Winston Moseley double-stabbed her in the back. Kitty screamed for help and a neighbor's voice responded from a window yelling at the killer "to leave her alone." After listening to the neighbor, Moseley left the scene, leaving the dying girl at the foot of her house, then returned 10 minutes later, stabbing her again, sexually abusing her and stealing her money.

This terrible and tragic event triggered a great controversy as a result of the New York Times article in which they narrated the events. According to the text, the atrocious event had not only been perpetuated by the murderer's hand, but also by the passivity of the 38 residents who surrounded the area and who, having witnessed the events, did not take any part in it or try to avoid it. The article stated that the young woman died for half an hour without the help of her neighbors, until one of them called an ambulance that went to the scene..

Thus, the complicated debate was opened about the reason for the lack of solidarity, the dehumanization of societies and the extreme individualism that flourishes within the great western cities.

Years later, Kitty's brother, William Genovese, began to study the case to find out to what extent the article was correct and if the tragic event had occurred as it was narrated. According to their investigations, many of the neighbors did not know exactly what was happening, some heard noises that they could not identify, as well as a neighbor who did come down to help the young woman. All these results are collected in the documentary The Witness.

But it is still true that some neighbors would have avoided acting and although the story was not entirely true, the controversy was served and it was clear that, whether there were 2 or 38 neighbors, some people behaved passively and that this lack of reaction to alarming events happens again and again in different contexts, situations and dates.

An investigation about it

Some previous studies and essays, such as Georg Simmel's, had already been done on the lack of sensitivity that prevails in individualistic behavior in cities. Shortly after these events, researchers John Darley and Bibb Latané tried to find an answer to the reason for this type of event, carrying out an experiment entitled "The Passive Bystander Experiment".

The researchers recruited several university students who were explained to participate in a group discussion with other participants who were in another room, via microphones. Each participant would take turns discussing with 1 to 5 people, depending on the condition of the experiment. However, they did not know that they were actually speaking with recorded voices..

When the participants were in full discussion, they listened as one of the subjects with whom they spoke through a microphone confessed to having epilepsy, this subject minutes later, began to have seizures. The results shocked the researchers: only 31% of the participants tried to contact to seek help.

This was accentuated when the subjects were in a group with 5 other people, however when only they participated, their response was more involved..

The bystander effect

This passive response to the help of others was called: the spectator effect. According to this, the more people are in a place, the less likely they are to help someone in need..

This seems to happen due to a perception of diffusion of responsibility. That is, when there are many more people around, the individual reaction is more passive due to a sense of lack of personal responsibility, something like thinking that other people could also help instead of oneself..

The other explanation responds to reasons of protocol and social behavior. When perceiving an inactivation in the behavior of other people, it seems the individual would tend to think that perhaps the situation is not so risky and that a reaction to it would not be appropriate. This does not happen, however, when there are few or only one spectator, since the perception of responsibility seems to be much higher, with which participation is more likely..

Although the study sample was small to draw global conclusions, other studies carried out later corroborated this surprising answer..

There are other variables to take into account when explaining these behaviors, such as cultural factors and the perception of the severity of situations, as well as a self-protection factor when it is deduced that by intervening in a conflictive event, one can be damaged . But sadly, the apathetic bystander effect has been put back on its feet in many psychological experiments and real-life events..

It is necessary that through information and social awareness individuals participate in these types of problems that make us increasingly unsupportive and selfish societies.

Links of interest

  • Bystander Apathy Experiment.
  • The Bystander Apathy Experiment.

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