The Bystander Effect

In all fields of psychology, there are times when research or experiments are needed. However, not all situations are known about in order for psychologists to perform the necessary actions so that they can understand the behaviors. A similar situation led to the study of a phenomenon called the bystander effect. In the stabbing death of a young woman named, Kitty Genovese, more than 30 witnesses failed to inform authorities for various reasons (Darley & Latane, 1968). This writing will review this case as well as the study that resulted from Genovese’s tragic death. The method, results, and the authors’ conclusions will also be addressed. The beginning was with Genovese and this writing will also begin there.

The Stabbing of Kitty


     According to Darley & Latane (1968), when Kitty Genovese was murdered there were “38 people who watched from the safety of their own apartments” who did nothing to help save her life because of various reasons that may have included thinking that someone else must have called; therefore, they did not have to (p. 337). This case did not get published in the papers like most other crimes of this nature; however, later the witnesses’ unusual behavior sparked the need for further investigation (Darley & Latane, 1968). Four or five years after the stabbing, Darley and Latane came together and created a laboratory experiment in order to test a hypothesis that they determined was the best fit for the situation (Darley & Latane, 1968).

The Study

Bystander Effect

     The study was conducted using “fifty-nine female and thirteen male students in introductory psychology courses at New York University” (Darley & Latane, 1968, p. 378). Each participant was taken into a separate room with a table, a set of headphones, and a microphone and they were told that they would each take turns discussing life as college students (Darley & Latane, 1968). The participants were also told that their microphones would only work when it was their turn to share their stories and would only stay on approximately “two minutes” (Darley & Latane, 1968, p. 378). At some point in the study, a member of the group would have a mock emergency that would start a timer, which would later become a variable in the results of the study (Darley & Latane, 1968). After these experiments had been conducted several times, the results were calculated and Darley and Latane determined the study conclusion.

The Results

According to Darley & Latane (1968), the participants were not only put into separate rooms, they were also put into different experimental groups, which included: one of three sizes: either a two-person group (consisting of a person who would later have a fit and the real subject), a three-person group (consisting of the victim, the real subject, and one confederate voice), or a six-person group (consisting of the victim, the real subject, and four confederate voices). All the confederates’ voices were tape-recorded (Darley & Latane, 1968, p. 379).


     The results were determined by how many other participants each participant thought were in attendance within each given experiment. There was an “experimental assistant seated at the end of the hall” from the participants’ rooms that started a timer when the mock emergency began and stop it when the real subject brought the emergency to the assistant’s attention or when the timer hit the six minute mark (Darley & Latane, 1968, p. 379). At which time, the assistant would end the study, “disclosed the true nature of the experiment, and dealt with any emotions aroused in the subject” (Darley & Latane, 1968, p. 379).

Once the real subject was calm, he or she was asked to complete a questionnaire in order to record his or her “thoughts and feelings during the emergency [as well as] completed scales of Machiavellianism, anomie, and authoritarianism, a social desirability scale, a social responsibility scale, and reported vital statistics and socioeconomic data”  (Darley & Latane, 1968, p. 379). It was found that the more participants the real subject thought was in the discussion, the less time it took for him or her to notify the assistant (Darley & Latane, 1968). Darley and Latane began the study with the hypothesis that the real subject would be less likely to respond to the emergency if he or she thought there were more participants and the results proved them to be correct (Darley & Latane, 1968).


     The authors concluded that there were many different responses to the thought of an emergency. Some of the participants were said to have spoken aloud thinking that they could not be heard because of their microphones being turned off while some others whispered softly, almost to themselves, as if they wanted to help but did not know how (Darley & Latane, 1968). Ultimately, the findings proved Darley & Latane’s (1968) hypothesis. The results mean that when people think that there are others that have helped the victim in an emergency they will most likely not help or will wait until much later to assist. However, if there is an emergency in an isolated area more people will likely report the need for aid or will assist if they can. This leads to the concept of situationism.

Situationism, Contemporary Society, and Different Results

Situationism is the “scientific belief in the significance of context” (Fiske, 2010, p. 7). According to Fiske (2010), situationism is a “remarkably simple premise,” which expands people’s ideas that are “commonly take for granted” (p. 7). Normally, people attempt to define “their own behavior” as well as other people’s behavior (Fiske, 2010, p. 7).


     The way they do this is by basing their assumptions on different personality types. However, social psychology teaches that human behavior is often controlled, changed, and determined on social situations. The study that has been discussed is the perfect example of the concept of situationism. Darley and Latane prove that the behaviors of the introductory psychology students are not different from those of the people who witnessed the stabbing death of Kitty Genovese, which shows that people do not always respond the same in the similar situations. The study also proves that the number of other people present factors in for the real subject to respond or not. Therefore, the situation determines and controls the behavior. Contemporary society does not fit this study because the people who did not respond to Genovese’s attack did not interconnect with anyone nor were they interested in making peace or making humanity better. This is also true for the studies that Darley and Latane conducted. The study consisted of a mix of male and female participants in the study; however, had there been more male students the results may have been different. Cultural and Ethnic groups would not have had much of an impact on this type of study.


Social psychology is the basis for understanding why people interact the way they do around other people. However, social situations can sometimes need a little more research to fully comprehend the unique reactions that some people have to certain stimulus or emergency. Some people may take action right away while others may sit back because they think that someone else has already reported the event. This is called the bystander effect. Darley & Latane (1968), coined this phrase after hearing of the stabbing murder and conducting the resulting study. What they found was no surprise; people only respond if they think they are either in a minuscule group of people who may have not already helped or do not respond at all.


Darley, J. M., & Latane, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8(4), 377-383. DOI:

Fiske, S. T. (2010). Social beings: Core motives in social psychology (2nd ed.). Danvers, MA: Wiley.

Image source for bystanders: Cherry, K. (n.d.). The bystander effect. Retrieved from

Image source for cartoon person: (n.d.). Your body clock hour by hour part 1. Retrieved from

Image source for Kitty: Scott, M. (Posted: March 7, 2014). The murder of Kitty Genovese, 50 years later — is 38 witnesses story a myth? Retrieved from

Image source for research: Schreiber, K. C. (Posted: January 23, 2013). Research study: Genomic analysis of hereditary diffuse gastric cancer arising in individuals with Germline CDH1 mutation. Retrieved from

Image source for social media: Yaqub, A. (Posted: October 6, 2012). Is online identity important to the youth in a contemporary society? Retrieved from

The Bystander Effect