If someone was in trouble, would you help? Psychologists say you likely wouldn’t. Here’s why

Sheina Myers
Published in
7 min readSep 14, 2021

What determines the action you will take when someone’s life is in danger and you are witness to it?

On a hot and sticky New York City summer day, melting on the subway platform, I and the seventy-or-so fellow sweaty passengers were counting the seconds for the air-conditioned subway to roll into the station. When the train came rolling in, a small girl about 5, let go of her mother’s hand and ran into a subway car by herself. As mother and daughter banged on the door screaming “OPEN!” , the train started pulling away from the station. A handful of people made sure to take the girl off at the next stop and wait for mom at the station. Shortly thereafter mother and daughter reunited. The story could have ended much worse than that. I am sure you can think of various terrible potential outcomes to that story.

Thankfully when people see a child in danger, they generally run to help. But even that does not happen often enough, and more to the point of this blog, we have countless encounters where an adult is clearly in trouble, and all the help present that day at the subway stop is nonexistent. We walk on, slightly bothered. Our consciousness reassures us that they are probably not really in trouble, we don’t know what went on there. If they are, surely they will get help. We don’t know, because we don’t stay to make sure they are ok. Someone else probably will, though, right? That person will be fine.

Or will they?

We think other people are not our responsibility; we are just bystanders minding our own business. We were taught to mind our own affairs at a young age.

This problem is known as the bystander effect.

What is the bystander effect?

The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help when other people are in need. The more people present, the less likely it becomes for one person to help. This can lead up to no one helping at all. This is especially true if there are many bystanders who watch what’s happening without intervening or offering assistance.

This blog post will explore the bystander effect and how it pertains to society today.

The murder case of Kitty Genovese is considered as the iconic real-life example of the bystander effect. Psychology textbooks all over the world describe how in 1964 a young woman was raped and murdered in New York while neighbors either saw or heard something suspicious, but did not take any action to help her. The New York Times reported on their front-page as follows:

“For more than half an hour thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens. 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.” (Gansberg, 1964, p. 1)

One of the witnesses, when asked why he didn’t call the police, shockingly reported: “I didn’t want to get involved”.

Unfortunately, this type of incident is not as rare as you’d think.

I have researched this topic many times in the last ten years on different occasions. I read in horrified curiosity about cases like that of Kitty Genovese, stabbed to death in the face of witnesses; about Eleanor Bradley laying on the sidewalk for 40 minutes, crying for help with a broken leg on 5th Avenue, NYC, and hundreds of people passing right by her before a single person stopped to help her (Freedman, Carlsmith and Sears, 1970 p. 413); about 17 year old Andrew Mormille getting stabbed in the stomach on the New York City subway, bleeding to death right in front of fellow passengers, while the assailants successfully fled the scene; about an 18 year old switchboard operator who, after getting raped and beaten in her office, ran out into the street naked and bleeding, attracted a crowd of 40 onlookers, none of whom prevented her attacker from dragging her back into the building.

I remember getting mugged one time, looking into the eyes of a passerby, my eyes desperately begging for help, and not receiving a stitch of assistance.

Emergencies happen regularly in many forms; crime, medical, and others, and our fellow passersby are more likely to keep on walking (though perhaps recorded for social media) than to help.

What does this say about the human race? What does this say about us, turning a blind eye or a deaf ear to a fellow human being in trouble? Where does this behavior, or lack thereof stem from?

I refuse to accept the idea of bystander apathy. I believe most people are inherently good. A sane human being allowing danger to happen to another person must have an explainable psychological reason, whether conscious or not, and from that place we can find the solution to a better, kinder and safer world.

Three causes for standing witness to an emergency without helping are:

  1. Diffusion of responsibility: We tend to divide our responsibility for an event or person by the amount of bystanders present. The more people are present, the less personally responsible we feel. There’s that inner voice of your consciousness assuring you, whispering inwardly: “someone else will help, keep walking”. Group size is a strong determinant of helping. It is the single bystander who is most likely to aid the victim and to do so in the shortest amount of time.
  2. Evaluation apprehension: The mental pressure of harm or threat appearing suddenly, necessitating immediate action can easily create a sense of situational ambiguity followed by fear and can distort one’s perception of the emergency or to underestimate their responsibility for getting involved. This can lead one to ignore the situation altogether and keep going.
  3. Lack of skill: Emergencies present critical problems that each require different types of action to solve. Knowing CPR does not equip me to put out a fire or handle a mugger.

Incidents involve four basic components: The victim, the bystander, the incident (emergency), and the intervention.

In any emergency event, it is the victim, not the bystander, who benefits from the intervention. Two core motivators in human behavior are personal responsibility and personal benefit. If neither factors are present during an emergency, you are unlikely to assist a person in need.

Latane and Darley, two of the earliest researchers in this area observed: “…failure to intervene may result from failing to notice an event, failing to realize the event is an emergency, failing to feeling personally responsible for dealing with the emergency, or failing to have sufficient skill to intervene.” (1969 p. 248)

What can we do about it?

Let us examine a few factors in which you are likely to assist:

  1. Bystander intervention occurs more frequently and rapidly when a bystander perceived himself to be similar rather than dissimilar to the victim
  2. Bystander intervention will occur more frequently and rapidly when a bystander is familiar with the emergency setting prior to the emergency than when he is not.

(Source: Williams, Ellen Weiss 1973 Publication)

The solution seems fairly simple: We need to take on personal responsibility for the victim and for assisting them. We need to be familiar with the emergency. We need to know what form of assistance to give. But how?

Emergency intervention requires singling out a particular course of action from a wide range of choices in a limited amount of time.

Despite the problem having been largely recognized, no good solution has been found, because solving a social psychological problem at scale takes a shift in paradigm.

When I started working at Globekeeper, some part of my brain remembered the bystander effect study. As I started working with SAFE, our community safety app, the topic pushed its way front and center and screamed: “THIS IS THE SOLUTION! WE SHIFTED THE PARADIGM!”

While SAFE is marketed as saving lives in record time, utilizing community sourced data, what it also does is solve a well understood, but thus far, largely unsolved psychological problem: Helping people we have never met. We have shifted the bystander intervention paradigm.

SAFE creates communities. With SAFE, whole neighborhoods, areas, cities, become your community. Every person has a name, a face, a home, and a beating heart. We can now perceive the victim of an emergency to be familiar from us rather than different.

SAFE is an incident reporter. With easy touch icons, a victim or bystander can create awareness of any emergency by just touching an icon- “Medical”, “Fire”, “Crime”, and more. You don’t need to have all the tools to fix the world. Different people have unique skills to match a variety of situations. SAFE directs every single incident to its correct toolset to resolve it. The only skill you need to have is button pressing. While that may sound silly, that simple motion can save a life.

SAFE bypasses the “brain freeze moment”, or lack of time, to report, by providing a plain and simple “SOS” button. The victim presses it. If you are a passerby around the corner from it, you will know about the emergency by the time you reach the corner, and can make an informative decision to either rush to the scene based on the skills you can provide, or ensure correct help arrives. Gone is the factor that causes us to look away and run.

With SAFE there are no more bystanders. Only communities, where people help one another. With SAFE people help each other because they are situationally aware, feel a kinship toward the other, and feel SAFE helping.

With SAFE we will overcome the obstacles that create stranger animosity. I can already see a brighter world.

With SAFE nobody is left in the dark.

For more information visit: safe.globekeeper.com