The Misconception: When someone is hurt, people rush to their aid.
The Truth: The more people who witness a person in distress, the less likely any one person will help.
If your car was to break down and your cell phone have no service, where do you think you would have a better chance of getting help – a country road or a busy street? To be sure, more people will see you on a busy street. On the country road, you might have to wait a long time before someone comes by. So, which one? Studies show you have a better chance on the country road. Why? Have you ever seen someone broken down on the side of the road and thought, “I could help them, but I’m sure someone will be along.” Yeah, everyone thinks that. No one stops. This is called the bystander effect.
(Bystander Effect by David McRaney at
The bystander effect is also called the Genovese Effect, Genovese Syndrome or diffusion of responsibility. The Genovese Effect is named for such an instance that shocked Americans in 1964. Kitty Genovese, native New Yorker, was sexually assaulted and killed by Winston Moseley, in front of her very large apartment building. It was early in the morning, and many dismissed Genovese’s calls for help as a domestic fight between a couples. One person even shouted out the window at Moseley. Moseley initially left the scene after stabbing Genovese twice. Ten minutes later, Moseley returned, and Genovese remained desperately attempting to reach her apartment. Since no one had gone out to offer help or assistance to Genovese, Moseley brutally raped and killed her.
Evidence does suggest that several calls were placed to police, but no one left their apartment to assist Ms. Genovese. Even when she had succeeded in getting into the hall of her apartment, no one checked on her. Though evidence on how many people witnessed the crime was exaggerated, it was clear that response to the crime by a number of people was to do nothing. Too many people dismissed the incident or thought someone else would help.
The Genovese case is highly imperfect as an example, for a number of reasons. The incident took place late at night (3:20am) and an important factor was the necessity (and apparent failure) of witnesses to telephone the police. Invoking authority involves a number of additional mechanisms and unknown variables which we would be better off without. For example, it is conceivable that in the weeks shortly before the Kitty Genovese incident there had been a well publicized case of the police prosecuting the person who had reported a crime, while the criminal went unpunished. Almost every British person is familiar with the name of Tony Martin, the farmer who was imprisoned for shooting a burglar who had repeatedly broken into his remote farmhouse.
The following may not be significant, the essential point being that someone else has decided such, so that the information is normally excluded from the account. That Kitty Genovese was a lesbian (she lived with her lover), her murderer was a Negro necrophilia, and the area of Kew Gardens, New York was largely Jewish at that time:
‘A large community of Jewish refugees from Germany took shape in Kew Gardens after the Second World War. The neighborhood attracted many Chinese immigrants after 1965…’ (Kikipedia).
The author of the original newspaper report was Martin Gansberg. The report was sensational and inaccurate since it is highly unlikely that “for more than half an hour 38 respectable law-abiding citizens… watched a killer stalk and stab a woman” as claimed in its opening sentence. The attacks were made at different locations and most of the building’s occupants were in bed. The murder did not however take place on the Jewish Sabbath (the 13th of March 1964 was a Friday) or else we might have certain Talmudic injunctions, as mentioned by Shahak, further complicating the affair.
What then, in light of the above, is the true background of the Kitty Genovese case? The incident received wide publicity in 1964 as an indictment of contemporary society. The implicit message, and almost certainly the context in which it was interpreted at the time, was “You can be murdered nowadays and no one will come to help.” Only later was the incident used to construct the concept of ‘Bystander Apathy’ and, as already noted, it is not a particularly good example.
A much simpler, and thus better, example of ‘Bystander Apathy’ occurred at a Rotterdam boating lake on 21 August 1993 (the incident features in a footnote on p. 250 of The Tyranny of Ambiguity). A Moroccan girl, Naima Quaghmiri, 9 years old, fell out of a boat in the middle of the shallow lake and noisily drowned. The other girl in the boat, a year or two older, tried to hold her above the water but failed, while approximately two hundred spectators watched. One of the crowds even made a video recording of it. As in the Kitty Genovese case, the ensuing newspaper reports discussed whether witnesses should be legally obliged to act, or punished for failing to do so.
(Altruism and Neurotic Suspension Beyond Kitty Genovese and the Bystander Effect by SIMON SHEPPARD, The Heretical Press at
For more than two hours on a dark Saturday night On October 24, 2009, as many as 20 people watched or took part as a 15-year-old California girl was allegedly gang raped and beaten outside a high school homecoming dance, authorities said.
As hundreds of students gathered in the school gym, outside in a dimly lit alley where the victim was allegedly raped, police say witnesses took photos. Others laughed. “As people announced over time that this was going on, more people came to see, and some actually participated,” Lt. Mark Gagan of the Richmond Police Department told CNN. The witnesses failed to report the crime to law enforcement, Gagan said. The victim remained hospitalized in stable condition. Police arrested five suspects and more arrests were expected.
(Gang rape raises questions about ‘bystander effect’ by Stephanie Chen, CNN at
In Foshan, South China, a van driver stops for a moment, presumably realizing in horror that he has just hit a toddler. Then he drives on – crushing her again beneath his rear wheels.
What follows is arguably even more horrifying: a dozen passersby ignore two-year-old Yueyue as she lies in agony in a busy market in southern China. Several glance at her bloodied body before continuing, while others walk or wheel around it.
Their apparent indifference means that she is hit again, by a truck. Surveillance camera footage from the busy wholesale market in Foshan, Guangdong, shows that it takes seven minutes before a woman finally stops to help.
The young girl’s fate has prompted horrified soul searching in China since the images were aired on a local television station. The footage has been watched more than 1.5m times on the popular Youku video sharing site.
Shanghai Daily reported that the little girl had died of her injuries in hospital after the collision, but other state media including the news agency Xinhua said she remained in a deep coma.
A doctor surnamed Peng told China Daily that medics had declared her brain dead on Sunday and she could die at any time. He said at best she would remain in a vegetative state on life support.
The widespread reluctance to help strangers has already led to an anguished public debate in the country. Many say they are too scared, blaming extortion attempts by people who have accused Good Samaritans of causing their injuries – and judges who have backed such claims. But some talked of a new moral low after seeing passersby – including a woman holding a small girl by the hand – walk around a two-year-old lying in a pool of blood.
China Daily claimed that the woman, who stopped, a rubbish collector, was even told by shopkeepers to mind her own business when she tried to find out the child’s identity.
Many internet users expressed fury, describing those who ignored Yueyue as less than human. “Where did conscience go … What has happened to the Chinese people?” wrote one, Reissent1987.
Several pointed out that it was a rubbish collector – among the poorest and often worst-educated members of society – who stopped to help, while others carried on. But some said that people should ask themselves how willing they would have been to help before criticising.
One said that while the footage was heartbreaking he would have been “numb” to Yueyue too. “Would you be willing to throw your entire family’s savings into the endless whirlpool of accident compensation? Aren’t you afraid of being put into jail as the perpetrator? Have you ever considered that your whole family could lose happiness only because you wanted to be a great soul?” he wrote.
Chinese media said the two drivers who had hit Yueyue were in police custody.
(Toddler left dying after hit and run prompts soul searching in China by Tania Branigan in Beijing,, Monday 17 October 2011 12.42 BST at
If any good can come of this, it is that the Foshan incident has sparked discussion in China. Many have criticized the passersby and blamed China’s compensation culture for their cold-heartedness, citing a well-known case in 2006 when someone who helped an injured old lady get to hospital was ordered by a judge to pay her compensation. (The judge’s argument was: who helps somebody like that unless they are at fault?)
Others say that Chinese traffic laws encourage bad behavior among drivers – that they are only required to pay compensation of ¥200,000 for a death caused by a car accident, but must pay all the medical treatment for the rest of victim’s life if the accident is non-fatal.
Whatever the reasons are and wherever we place the blame, there is no excuse for witnessing a human being dying without doing anything to help. As many Chinese web users have written, it’s possible that there is a kind of sickness in Chinese society that has infected them to the core, and which has been growing for a long time.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the country was caught up in the political frenzy of the Cultural Revolution. A whole generation lost their youth, spending a precious decade in rural China or in labor camps. Four decades on, China has been transformed into a major economic power. However, China still hasn’t completely recovered from this period; the same lack of trust and the instinct for self-preservation that helped a generation survive the political shocks of their youth, has not gone away. It is a trauma that is rarely spoken of or dealt with personally.
Many were sentenced to labor camps for many years during the cultural revolution after speaking up for friends who had been denounced as a counter-revolutionary. That period is a reminder to him and his family to never get involved in other people’s business.
(Shocking Foshan incident reveals an unspoken illness at China’s core by Yajun Zhang,, Wednesday 19 October 2011 12.27 BST at
The deeper and more troubling question is why the bystander effect occurs? Many theories have been put forward and among them are the following:
1. Everyone is convinced that someone else will do something.
2. There is a diffusion of responsibility in which the metaphor comes into play that, “No one rain drop believes it caused the flood.” Here, the larger the group, the less pressure each witness feels to do anything helpful.
3. There is fear of victimization in which people avoid conflict because of the dread that they will be attacked if they help.
4. The larger the group the more likely it is that everyone will look to everyone else for clues about what to do. In this case, observing no one taking action is translated into something like, “It is not appropriate for me to take action.”
5. People create their socially acceptable reasons for not taking actions, such as, “Well, no one else is doing anything because: it’s a lover’s quarrel; it’s just teenage pranks; it’s just innocent play acting, etc.”
(The Bystander Effect, What Would You Do? By Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Nov 3rd 2009 at
The most common explanation of this phenomenon is that, with others present, observers all assume that someone else is going to intervene and so they each individually refrain from doing so. This is an example of how diffusion of responsibility leads to social loafing. People may also assume that other bystanders may be more qualified to help, such as being a doctor or police officer, and their intervention would thus be unneeded. People may also fear “losing face” in front of the other bystanders, being superseded by a “superior” helper, or offering unwanted assistance. Another explanation is that bystanders monitor the reactions of other people in an emergency situation to see if others think that it is necessary to intervene. Since others are doing exactly the same, everyone concludes from the inaction of others that other people do not think that help is needed. This is an example of pluralistic ignorance and social proof.
Craig and Marc Kielburger founders of Free the Children and co-authors of Me to We posted the followings in
“The man huddled underneath his tattered blanket as tightly as he could, but still shivered from the cold. The cardboard box that he sat on was damp from being placed on the snow, and his scruffy beard made him look old and worn. He couldn’t have been more than 30.
Amid the hustle and bustle of downtown, this man stood out. We were young and from the suburbs, so homeless people were a rare sight for us. Standing there, we watched as most people ignored him. Despite having to walk right past his slouched body, they pretended he wasn’t there. But our mother stopped. She took us by the hand and approached him with a smile. “Hello, how are you?” she said. With a tone of compassion, she asked what his name was and if he had been able to find a shelter the night before. The exchange lasted only a few minutes, then she handed him a dollar and we were off.
As kids, we used to think she was just doing this to be nice to him. Only years later did we really understand that she was also trying to teach us a lesson. She wanted to show us the importance of acknowledging the humanity in everyone.
It’s a lesson we were reminded of when out-of-town relatives came to visit and were shocked by the number of people sleeping on the streets. We realized then that we had become accustomed to seeing them there. Now living in the big city ourselves, we too were guilty of walking by.”


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