Investigation of the Effect of Bystander Behaviour on Helping Behaviour in a Non-Emergency Situation

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Investigation of the Effect of Bystander Behaviour on Helping Behaviour in a Non-Emergency Situation


One model explaining whether people offer assistance in emergency situations is diffusion of responsibility: the greater the number of bystanders present, the less personal responsibility is felt by each bystander. A second model, the normative theory, suggests that people comply with social norms, being more likely to help if an appropriate helping response is modelled by others. To investigate which model best accounts for helping behaviour, a naturalistic study was conducted in which participants were able to offer help in a minor emergency. The participants were 1122 undergraduates from Monash University. Most helping was demonstrated when no bystanders were present. The results supported the diffusion of responsibility theory more than the normative theory.

In 1964, a New York city woman Kitty Genovese was brutally stabbed to death outside her apartment block. Of the 38 witnesses, none offered assistance, not even the simple act of notifying the police (Latane & Nida, 1981). This failure to help stimulated research into understanding why bystanders often fail to give assistance in emergency situations.

Latane and Darley (1970) wondered why people were unwilling to offer assistance in emergencies when they were quite happy to help in non-emergencies. They suggested a five-step model explaining what a bystander must do in order to help.

Stage 1. Recognise that an event is occurring.

Stage 2. Interpret the event as an emergency.

Stage 3. Decide that he or she has a personal responsibility to help.

Stage 4. Consider what form of help he or she can give.

Stage 5. Execute the helping response.

Helping behaviour is action that is intended to assist or benefit another person. This study is most concerned with Latane and Darley’s Stage 3. Completion of Stage 3 might be affected by whether the bystander considers the victim deserving of help, whether the bystander feels competent to help, the relationship of the bystander towards the victim, and whether responsibility is shared with other bystanders. Diffusion of responsibility is when the psychological costs of not helping are shared amongst bystanders. Diffusion of responsibility explains the bystander effect, which states that the more bystanders there are, the less likely it is than any one of them will help.

Explanatory theories for helping behaviour can be tested by creating an emergency situation and examining the unprompted helping behaviour given by naïve participants. To model the Kitty Genovese case, Latane and Darley (1970) created an emergency situation in which a number of bystanders were all able to provide help, but were unable to communicate with other bystanders or know the behaviour of the others. The results of this experiment suggested that as the number of bystanders present increased, the probability of any one bystander trying to help decreased (Latane & Darley, 1970). Many further studies by Latane, Darley and others, conducted with a wide variety of emergency situations, participants and levels of communication between bystanders, support this diffusion of responsibility hypothesis (Latane & Nida, 1981). When participants can communicate with each other, pluralistic ignorance can result – a majority of people in a group privately reject the group norm, but erroneously assume that most other people accept the norm (Brehm & Kassin, 1996). In an emergency situation, people look around, and may take the hesitancy of other bystanders as indicating that the situation isn’t an emergency. Asch (1999) suggests that our desire for social conformity is cause for concern, because individuals are prepared to disregard their own sound judgement and take on the majority view even when the majority is obviously wrong.

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Bryan and Test (1967), however, suggest that the presence of others does not necessarily inhibit helping. In an emergency situation, whether people help is influenced by how others react, not solely by whether others are present. They suggest that the likelihood of helping behaviour can be increased if an appropriate helping response is modelled by others. In their naturalistic study, a woman was unable to change a tyre on the side of a highway. In the first situation, participants had observed a man helping a different woman change a tyre earlier along the road. In the second situation, no ...

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