Social Psychology: The Bystanders Effect

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 The bystander effect is one of the most interesting issues within social psychology. Many psychologists have theorized why this has become such an issue in a society where the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation. It has been noted that the greater number of bystanders, the less likely it is for any one of them to provide help to the person in distress (Psychology Today, 2018). The term ‘bystander effect’ was coined after the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964. She was murdered in a New York neighborhood and in that time thirty-eight neighbors reported hearing Kitty being murdered and yet no one provided any help. This incident sparked the interests of many psychologists and news reporters to further study and gather evidence if this was in any way shaped by society. In this paper, it will explain and evaluate whether the bystander effect is truly an issue in today’s society as it was back before the murder of Kitty Genovese.

In circumstances to help an individual in a time of aid, many people have never really encountered such a situation and say have little experience as to what to do during the moment of deciding whether they should help or not. According to Latane and Darley, before helping another, a bystander process is developed with a five-step decision making process. A bystander must notice that something is wrong, define the situation as an emergency or a circumstance requiring assistance, decide whether he or she is personally responsible to act, choose how to help, and finally implement the chosen helping behavior (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019). In our society today, the bystander effect occurs more through social media than in person. An example would be cyberbullying, by ‘liking’ it sends a message about what the correct response is to a certain situation. Thousands of people everyday witness inappropriate and terrible human behaviors online but nothing is ever done. Registering a ‘like’ with no obligations to intervene is just the new norm in today’s society (The Conversation, 2019).

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The bystander effect would not be the same if the media was not involved at all. The media has a huge part to play in the death of Genovese because if it wasn’t for the news reporters and all the articles being written it wouldn’t have caused as much interest as it has to this day. The New York Times wrote an interesting article at the time and it was was one of the most known articles because of how easily they were able to get people to trust the story they told. In the documentary we saw in class had mentioned that The New York Times didn’t have all the correct details or they were missing important parts about what had happened that night yet the public didn’t doubt the publisher and believed every word. Well-known newspapers and news reporters takes a huge role in how well the community is going to take the story and if The New York Times didn’t do a story on this specific murder, the story wouldn’t have blown up so big and we probably wouldn’t be talking about it today, it would have just been another unfortunate death. Another thing I noticed while reading the article from The New York Times was that they primarily focused on the neighbors/witnesses rather than focus on the actual killer who had done it, which I found interesting because if they had taken a different approach to the story, the bystander effect wouldn’t have been such a huge deal to this day either.

The murder was said to be a concidence that Kitty was walking alone back to her apartment that night, the murderer Winston Moseley had stated, “selecting Ms. Genovese at random,” at the time I would not believe race had anything to do with Kitty’s murder (The New York Times). Race would be more of a problem now due to media and racism happening in society now. Even gender has been seen to not be a problem to view the bystander effect. In 2017, a man was dragged off a United Airlines flight, instead of intervening in the assault, the passengers took out their camera phones and pointed them towards the man, whose body was dragged along the aisle of the airplane, glasses askew, face bloody, and belly exposed. Their immediate response was not to speak out against what was going on, but to create an instant digital recording of the incident (Quartz, 2017). This is just one out of many examples of how society and media are changing the perspective on the bystander effect whether it be a cause of race or gender.

Media has begun to have a powerful impact on society and the way we do things. Social media has a good side and a bad side. Social media, and the internet as a whole, has provided people with more access to information than they’ve ever had before. Also, quicker information – anyone with a mobile device can search for anything at any time (SocialMediaToday). On the other hand, there is both real and “fake” information thrown onto the internet. People will always look for a way to capitalize on any social media platform and there will be those who’ll believe anything they happen to read and not do any further research to find out if it is true or not.

During the time of Kitty’s murder, social media was not as popular as it is today so exposure that big was only read through newspapers and it was more difficult to do any further research to check if any of the information was true, The New York Times was one of the most known newspapers that provided the most accurate news for the commuity, having very little people doubt what was being said. If we compare this to how media has changed than it’s a huge difference because now we have thousands of articles on this specific murder and we have many people saying different or similar things, there is just so many resouces available to the public that it has made it easier. It has also made a powerful influence on the bystander effect, even though there is no reliable studies to prove this assumption, there has been well documented cases of acts occurring while large crowds of people are watching and made no attempt to intervene, and in some cases, people can be heard laughing as an individual is being killed. Is social media allowing individuals to become less empathetic or is revealing a truth of what kind of people we have been throughout the decades (Psychology Today)?

Something else that plays in with the bystander effect that was taken out of the movie is, “If you could save someone if you only knew.” this is an important idea to look at because a lot goes into deciding if your help is needed in a situation or not. If you happen to know the person in need of aid, there is a bigger chance of you helping because they could be someone close to you or even someone you happen to see everyday and that can take a toll on someone while deciding whether to intervene in the situation. It is known also, if this person is also attractive, we are more likely to help these people. As well, we are more likely to help those similar to ourselves and this plays in our daily lives because we can happen to see a situation where someone is in need of aid and we will base those ideas to decide if we will help or not. This is something that can be concerning because it shouldn’t matter what a person looks like or anything, if someone is in need of help, we should always be there to lend a hand.

The bystander effect has been seen to still be a problem now possibly even more of an issue than it was during the time of Kitty Genoveses’ death due to the influence society has had on individuals. The media has a lot to do with this due to how social media has shaped a very unhealthy way to “intervene” in serious incidents and it has shaped new perspectives on how the bystander effect is viewed. It has also showed that race and even gender has no major roles in how the bystander effect was viewed back in 1964 up until today. Many of these factors have shaped very different ways of thinking and doing even more research of how society is changing, it will soon show this theory will continue to change with it.  


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