Motivations for Helping and Bystander Effect Theory: Analytical Essay

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Motivations for helping is multiply determined, several reasons affect individuals

Bystander intervention decreases an individual’s willingness to intervene and help others. The most notorious case which portrays this was the muder of Kitty Genovese, 38 residents witnessed the crime however none of which intervened (Manning, Levine, & Collins, 2007). It has been proposed that bystanders rationalised their inaction by assuming that other bystanders would intervene therefore, regarded their assistance as unnecessary (Greitemeyer & Mügge 2013). This implies that Genovese death could have been prevented if there were a fewer number of bystanders. Darley and Latané conducted experiments to test how individuals and groups respond differently to a crisis where an emergency was clearly defined. Participants were seated alone in rooms whilst communicating with a confederate who pretended to have a seizure, asked for help and began to choke through an intercom. Participants either believed they were alone, had one or four other participants present. It was found that as the number of witnesses increased, the likelihood of the participants seeking help for the ‘victim’ decreased from 85% when alone, 62% with one other participant and down to 31% when it was believed four other participants were present, thus supporting the bystander effect theory (Darley & Latane, 1968).

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Latané and Darley (1970) identified three different psychological processes which explains why the bystander effect may have occurred. Diffusion of responsibility suggests that in the presence of other bystanders, individuals are less likely to intervene because they feel less personal responsibility for helping because responsibility is shared (Darley, & Latane, 1968) Secondly, the process of evaluation apprehension elicits fear that bystanders intervention may increase danger within the situation, creating the possibility of legal action against them as well judgement by other superior helpers (Siegal, Latane & Darley, 1972). Finally, bystanders may also exhibit pluralistic ignorance. This suggests individuals observe the behaviour of other bystanders and misinterpret each other’s inaction as a sign that intervention is not required (Latané and Rodin, 1969), demonstrating the effect of social influence on bystander intervention. (Greitemeyer & Mügge 2013).

Several elements within this study have been criticised. Although the use of laboratory experiments allows an increased control over extraneous variables, the experimental setup contains mundane realism, participants believed other individuals would be able to witness the seizures which were in fact pre-recordings. The study was conducted in an artificial environment compared to that of a real life crime setting, creating a lack of generalisability and decreasing the external validity of findings. Since participants were aware they were being studied, social desirability and demand characteristics could have altered their behaviour, affecting the reliability of findings. The experimental sample was gender imbalanced, 59 females and 13 males. Therefore, the composition of the sample is unrepresentative since the findings mainly reflects the behaviour of females. It has been argued that men are more likely to intervene in situations perceived as dangerous, decreasing the validity and generalisability of finding (Eagly & Crowley, 1986). There are also ethical implications within this study, one of which is that participants were deceived into believing that the seizures were real. This situation caused participants forms of distress, many showing signs of nervousness, Eg, trembling hands and sweaty palms. It has also been argued that the Kitty Genovese incident was misconceived, not all 38 witnesses could see the attack, suggesting Latané and Darley developed their bystander effect theory on incorrect information. The bystander effect also lacks internal validity because it shifts the attention to the psychological impact of the presence of others instead of the violence itself which is argued to be a more critical issue that we should be concerned with (Manning, Levine, & Collins, 2007).

Latané and Darley (1968), conducted another experiment which recorded the length of time students took to notice smoke entering a room whilst completing a questionnaire. When alone 75% of individuals reported the smoke compared to only 10% when in the presence of passive bystanders. This led to the proposal that in the case of an emergency individuals undergo a cognitive process before deciding whether or not to intervene. The first step involved individuals noticing the event, this must then be interpreted as an emergency, deciding whether it’s their personal responsibility to act and finally to know the appropriate forms of assistance. It’s suggested that at each stage bystanders can remove themselves from the decision process which therefore leads to the failure to intervene. Based on this model Latané and Darley suggested greater failure to intervene and report the seizure in the case where a larger number of bystanders are present is a result of the diffusion of responsibility (Darley & Latane, 1968).

An advantage of this study was that variations in group compositions were also studied, female, male and premedical male bystander. Male (69%) and female (62%) responding speeds were similar. This demonstrates that gender and identity of bystanders did not have an effect on the frequency and speed of participants’ responses. As well as this personality also had no significant impact on the speed of responses, suggested from the 15 item checklist used to investigate the thoughts participants had when hearing the seizures. The control over these confounding and extraneous variables reduces the risk of individual differences from affecting the results and thus increases the internal validity of findings (Darley & Latane, 1968). Overall results suggest that personality variables eg: lack of empathy, are not the primary reasons for the lack of intervention in the case of emergencies as previously thought. As a result, this study has contributed greatly to understanding why individuals may not intervene and more specifically how the presence of others may affect this. While this study can be criticised on a number of aspects, it has a number of practical applications and has provided valuable contribution to the understanding of the bystander effect.

However, bystander apathy happens sometimes. Harari and White (1985), staged a rape scene at night on campus and found that men are more likely to intervene in a rape situation if they are in group conditions (85%) of 2-3 compared to in individual conditions (65%) and directly intervene as well (Harari, Harari & White, 1985). There are several factors which may contribute to why intervention increased when participants were in group conditions. The sample consisted of students who all attended the same college campus, San Diego State University, this community creates a sense of group cohesiveness (Rutkowski, Gruder & Romer, 1983). Students share similarities since they all belong to the same social group, this may allow individuals to place themselves or others who they may know in the victim’s position thus increasing intervention. Attending the college within which the experiment occurred could imply that students are familiar with the environment therefore are more likely to be aware of where to get help which could also increase intervention (Okhuysen, 2001). Since it could be assumed that the ‘victim’ was a student too which increases the likelihood of future encounters, participants may have felt accountable for intervening since it is argued that individuals who believed they would have to talk to the ‘victim’ after helped faster (Gottlieb & Carver, 1980) The experiment was conducted in an environment where a rape assault had previosuly occurred, participants were most likely aware of this thus increasing the norm of social responsibility participants may feel which in hand increases intervention. The knowledge of a real life previous assault having occurred and the ‘victims’ yelling of ‘Rape! Rape’ may have also allowed participants to faster recognise and define the situation as an emergency. The arousal cost reward model proposes that this creases higher levels of arousal and thus increases intervention (Fischer et al., 2011) Sex role stereotype suggests that in general behaviour follows traditional gender socialisation, men are more likely to be regarded as strong and heroic (Eagly & Crowley, 1986). It could be suggested that the male participants were more likely to intervene in group conditions in an attempt to demonstrate their ‘masculinity’ especially when others are present, gaining social desirability (McMahon, 2010)

An advantage of this study includes the inclusion of the type of intervention which the participants displayed, direct or indirect. The greater use of direct intervention could be explained by participants’ ability to see and talk to each other. This demonstrates how the effect of proximity allows individuals to define the situation as an emergency, increasing intervention unlike in Latané and Darley (1968), study where participants were placed in separate rooms. This study was conducted in a realistic setting where previous real life assaults had occurred in. The use of a natural environment creates high mundane realism which produces more valid and authentic behaviour, increasing external validity of findings. This also demonstrates that intervention is more likely to occur in a naturalistic setting in comparison to a laboratory setting used in Latané and Darley study. However, there’s a sense of community among students on college campuses and sexual assault is also rather common therefore it would be interesting to observe the behvaiour of individuals in another environment.

This study consisted of ‘393 white male San Diego University students’. Although a large volume of data was gathered, the population studied has been criticised for having a limited sample characteristic which thus affects the external validity of findings. The universality of this study has also been questioned, the use of only male subjects creates beta bias since it is assumed intervention would be the same for females. Research suggests that women are overall more likely than men to report suspected rape therefore, findings from Harari and White (1985) study lacks generalisability (Fox, Burgess, Levin, Wong & Burgess, 2007). For future research it may be interesting to control extraneous variables such as the participants height and weight, through the use of a matched pairs design, in an attempt to explore whether bystanders physique may affect their intervention against a perpetrator with a smaller or larger build compared to them. The population used is also unrepresentative due to the lack of racial diversity of participants thus findings could be accused of being ethnocentric since individuals from other cultures may behave differently. Therefore future research should incorporate participants from a wider and more diverse range of ethnicities, genders and universities in an attempt to increase the reliability of findings. The dependent variable within this study was measured by observing participants’ body language, this measure is rather subjective since it relies on perspective therefore, findings may have been affected by investigator effects, reducing the internal validity. It was also stated that the debrief which participants had were short, this creates ethical implications within the study since witnessing a rape scene could be traumatising and thus have long term effects on participants.

There are also other factors to consider when examining bystander intervention. The social learning theory suggests that individuals are more likely to repeat a behavior depending on the consequences (Pierce & Bandura, 1977). This suggests positive prior experiences of bystanders could increase intervention for future situations (Banyard, Plante & Moynihan, 2003). Studies also suggest that bystanders are more likely to directly intervene if they know the victim as opposed to intervening indirectly if the victim is a stranger, demonstrating how the bystander and victim relationships plays an effect on intervention (Bennett and Banyard, 2016). Bystanders also use the rational choice theory to examine whether intervention may expose them to danger, if this is the case then intervention decreases. However if bystanders believe that their anonymity would be maintained they are more likely to intervene since this preserves their safety


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