Following the tragic murder of Kitty Genovese, social psychologists Bibb Latane’ and John Darley did a series of innovative experiments to test the effects of bystanders on decisions to intervene in an emergency.
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The main issue and the hypotheses tested by the experimenters
The main issue of the experiment carried out by Latane and Darley was the behavioral research of the witnesses of some cases of emergency. As opposed to the common opinion that the more witnesses are involved in the emergency, the better, the researchers have made the hypothesis that the more numerous are the bystanders, the less is their motivation to assist. Latane and Darley explain this phenomenon by the effect of the diffusion of responsibility.
The mere understanding of the fact that other people are also witnessing the situation decreases a person’s sense of responsibility, and in such a way, decreases the opportunity of interfering with the situation. The individual hopes that it will be another person who will take responsibility. On the contrary, the person who is alone with the victim is more likely to render assistance.
Findings of the experimenters comparing their three experimental conditions in terms of their dependent measure
In order to confirm their prediction, Latane and Darley carried out a certain quantity of the experiments. The method used in the experiment was the staging of the potentially dangerous situation (such as smoke from the wall vent) and the observation of the participants reaction.
The point, which was maintained a focus, was the length of time for the participant to react. The subjects of the experiment, which had been tested alone, showed an adequate reaction to the appearance of the smoke. It took them several minutes to report about it.
Those who had been tested together with the confederates showed another result. Confederates behaved themselves as nothing had happened, so did the real participants. Among the ten subjects of the experiment, only one reported the smoke.
The last part of the participants was divided into groups consisting form the three naive bystanders. The results, shown by the participants of this group, were better than in the previous experiment, but much worse than in the first one.
The main reasons the authors gave for why bystanders inhibit intervention in an emergency
The authors of the research, explaining the behavior of bystanders, give several reasons for it.
As the authors explain it in a case of emergency, while making a decision whether to interfere or not, an individual must take several preliminary steps. First of all, a person has to notice the event, then to interpret it as the situation of emergency, and on the last stage to decide whether it is his personal responsibility to act or not (Latane and Darley 140).
On every stage of this chain, the bystander can remove himself from making a decision and taking responsibility. As Latane and Darley explain it, the person “can fail to notice the event, he can fail to interpret it as an emergency, or he can fail to assume the responsibility to take action.” (Latane and Darley 140). The example of the given experiment proves the influence of surrounding people on making the decision by the individual.
Other reasons that can cause the presence of bystanders to inhibit acting in an emergency
The diffusion of responsibility is not the only reason that can cause the presence of bystanders to inhibit acting in the emergency. There is also such a factor as the ambiguity and consequences – the situation when the bystander is not sure whether a person requires assistance or not. The next factor is the understanding of the environment – the bystander is more likely to interfere in case if the environment that is familiar to him. The cultural differences may also be observed.
Explaining the bystander effects in the Kitty Genovese murder
The murder of Kitty Genovese is a typical example of the bystander effect. No one among the 38 witnesses of this crime intervened, or at least called the police. Such behavior may be partly explained by the diffusion of responsibility. It was entirely possible, according to this theory, that in case there was only one eyewitness of this crime, Kitty Genovese would still be alive. But among these 38 bystanders, nobody took responsibility upon himself. Everyone excepted it from the other.
Latane, Bibb, and John M. Darley. “Group inhibition of bystander intervention in emergencies.” Journal of personality and social psychology 10.3 (1968): 215.