Bystander Intervention

Today we have a guest blog post from Fiona, a reader from New Zealand who has written about the psychological research into the phenomenon of bystander intervention and apathy. It’s fascinating how many different approaches there are to this issue, which was kicked off by the infamous death of Kitty Genovese.

kitty genovese

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Catherine ‘Kitty’ Genovese’s untimely and gruesome death in 1964 hardly caused a ripple in the media of the day. Reported only in a small column of the New York Times, it was purely through a conversational misunderstanding between New York city police commissioner, Fredrick Lussen and journalist Abe Rosenthal that lead to further examination of the Genovese case. What was unusual about Ms. Genovese’s death was that it had been prolonged, loud, and witnessed. It was not witnessed by just one or two people, an astonishing thirty-eight of Ms. Genovese’s neighbours heard her screams and pleas for help over the thirty five minutes it took for her attacker to repeatedly stab her, sexually assault her, then leave her to die. Not one of these thirty-eight people made any attempt whatsoever to assist Ms. Genovese, not aiding her physically, or even contacting police until it was too late.

The horrific nature of this event, not just the torturous murder of a young woman returning home from work, but also the apparent cruel paralysis that gripped the bystanders, sparked an important series of experiments in social psychology. Psychologists sought to understand and predict the phenomena that came to be known as bystander intervention. There are various theories as to what causal influences corroborate to create bystander intervention (or nonintervention). Some of these have included social-cognitive theories while others have focused on perception of self by others . There has been discussion emphasizing that each theory has arisen in a specific historical and social climate that has profoundly influenced them . As well as those who are critical of the ‘mechanical and causal’ approach these theories have taken. Contemporary neurobiological theory and the Human Givens approach can also be applied to expound and perhaps negate bystander intervention.

Abe Rosenthal went on to write a book about Ms. Genovese’s murder and the ‘big city apathy’ that he believed was behind her neighbours’ inability to act on her behalf. New York City psychiatrist Dr. Iago Galdston, commented at the time; ‘I would assign this to the effect of the megalopolis in which we live which makes closeness very difficult and leads to the alienation of the individual to the group’ . Bibb Lantané and John Darley (1968/1993) examined the police reports from a social psychology perspective, subsequently countering Rosenthal’s journalistic hypothesis by suggesting that it was, in fact, the large number within the witness group that caused the nonintervention, rather than apathy or indifference. Lantané and Darley’s theory is perhaps the most prominent of all the social psychology theories cited in literature on bystander intervention. They state that within a large group, personal responsibility lessens; therefore it is less likely that individuals would respond to a situation, this is referred to as responsibility diffusion . If there is uncertainty around the nature of an event, it is suggested that individuals look for social cues to assess how to behave9. If there are no apparent ‘concern’ reactions, there can develop what Lantané and Darley refer to as a ‘state of pluralistic ignorance’10 where no one offers assistance. When a situation has been assessed and it is decided that there is an emergency requiring intervention, the bystander needs to decide if it will be them that intervenes. Lantané and Darley conclude that if there are many bystanders the ‘costs’, that is stress, embarrassment, or shame, of nonintervention is lower. When a person is alone and encounters an apparent emergency situation they are much more likely to respond quickly and without hesitation.

Self-perception theories are concerned with individual’s perceptions, of other people’s interpretations of their behaviour. Shalom Schwartz and Avi Gottlieb (1976) hypothesised that evaluation apprehension, being aware that other bystanders are observing, would neutralise diffusion of responsibility and negate the bystander effect. Their conjecture was clearly demonstrated in their experiments completed in Jerusalem. This research was also unique, as they specifically investigated response to a violent attack, whereas previous research had been around illness/seizure, accidental fall, potential fire and the like. Roy Baumeister (1982) also argues that it is not only assessment of ambiguity around an event, but also evaluation apprehension that affects altruism or intervention. He further argues that it is the desire to act in ways, we believe are expected of us, (such as empathetic helping behaviour in an apparent emergency situation, or heroic behaviour in an aggressive situation involving powerless victim/s) in order to be judged as having ‘done the right thing’, or not ‘over reacting’ in a non-emergency situation. These again are purely selfish motivations for altruism.

Frances Cherry (1995) points out that each theory emerges in a particular historical, cultural, and social climate that illuminates differing aspects of the original Genovese murder and therefore bystander intervention. Lantané and Darley had recently gained their doctorates at the time of Ms. Genovese’s murder, they came from a school of predictive psychology. Cherry candidly discusses her personal ‘shift in framework’11 towards interpretative psychology whereby the processes of how we make sense of the world are studied, rather than predictions (hypotheses) to how average people might act in a hypothetical situation (removing any anomalous results outside of the regular bell curve). Parallel to Cherry’s shift in thinking, feminist culture was beginning to take hold in society at large. Kitty Genovese’s murder was now being approached in the light that she had also been raped. However, it took until 1975 before the appearance of experimental research aimed at gauging bystander intervention during violent attack on a woman by a man. According to Cherry increasing social awareness of the influence of ethnicity, gender, economic status, age, and powerlessness in prejudice and therefore behaviour toward others should alter the way in which theorising in contemporary social psychology is done. She also adds a cautionary note as to the seemingly concrete nature of social psychology theory; what was relevant in the 60’s was not so pertinent in0 the 70’s. Social theory, Cherry argues, should never be seen as permanent. It would be interesting to see how the contemporary Wikipedia representation of Kitty Genovese, as a lesbian with a live in girlfriend, might alter future bystander intervention analysis.

Richard Williams (2002) is also deeply concerned with the overall state of social psychology, inferring that the mechanical experimental search for variables and causal effect asks erroneous questions, from a mistaken perspective. He assertively states that past and current social psychology is neither social or moral, that the reduction of human social interaction to the cold analysis of variables, in his view negates meaning in the results. He believes, in relation to bystander intervention, that rather than seek to understand the ‘elaborate social and personal machinations by which the sense of obligation is extinguished’ and thus explicate altruism, social psychology should instead be asking how to explicate murder. Williams encourages the adoption of more meaningful social psychology experimentation and theorisation flavoured with post-modern philosophy of the self. That is, self as a social being in relation to the Other; ‘the mode of being of the self is thus fundamentally ethical, grounded in heteronomy and ethical obligation to the Other’. This is juxtaposed to the ‘modern’ view of the self as an individual with privatised knowledge, which Williams and colleague Edwin Gantt (1998) see as having no possibility of genuine intimacy, therefore for this self, altruism is based on rational moral principles not empathy.

Neurobiologist Joseph LeDoux’s (1992, 1998) research demonstrates that the amygdala, a small area in the limbic system is fundamental to the flight or fight response. This is possible because of the amygdala’s ‘anatomical connectivity’; the amygdala processes sensory information from two inputs; the fastest pathway contains raw partial images from the thalamus (thalmao-amygdala pathway). The longer pathway is of more complete complex information from the cortex (cortico-amygdala pathway). If a potential emergency is not genuine, the flight fight response is aborted. If the excitatory message from the amygdala is strong enough the thalmao-amygdala synaptic pathway inhibits the cortex from halting the flight fight response so that we can escape true danger. While our pre-conscious brain makes this split second decision, our body freezes for a moment14, this is considered by evolutionary psychologists/biologists to be an adaptive feature of the flight fight reflex, if we are not moving it can be harder for predators to see us. What appears to happen in bystander intervention is that the bystander freezes, while the potential emergency experience is assessed but that this paralysis persists, as a kind of trance, resulting in nonintervention.

This could be perceived as a very biological and perhaps cold way of viewing bystander intervention, but it may also circumnavigate the question of apathy altogether; if nonintervention is a result of ancient brain pathways that have not adapted for modern life, then we are not heartless and need not feel any shame in not intervening. As individuals we can be susceptible to trance states, if bystanders are looking for social cues and find others in the group entranced and therefore gripped in paralysis, it is likely that the social cues read nonintervention. In reality, regardless of social theory, a situation only requires one person to intervene thus developing a snowball effect by giving instructions to those around them; people entranced are excellent at taking directions, if they were not there would be no grotesque hypnosis stage shows. Griffin and Tyrrell (and others utilising the Human Givens approach) specialise in enabling people to master these trance states in order to empower individuals to respond in emergencies – and other situations involving the same amygdala/trance mechanism such as phobia, posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

I applaud Williams and Gantt’s innovative merging of philosophical post-modern thought into social psychology theorising, theirs is a search for genuine and meaningful empirical knowledge, rather than tenuous laboratory research. Griffin and Tyrrell’s psychology theory and practice is based in just such a knowledge-as-experience case study approach. Through the embracing of neurobiological research they are weaving a potent approach of psychotherapy; it is empowering to know that our brains are hardwired in a particular way and that each of us can significantly change how this wiring rules or frees us to respond in situations that we had previously perceived ourselves as powerless in. Cherry has illuminated the fluid and nonpermanent element of social psychology; what is appropriate for one age is not appropriate for another. She also notes that theorists emerge from specific social and cultural climates that influence them innately, we are not isolated observers in life we are involved and subjective. Griffin and Tyrrell are also aware that contemporary culture and society have important significance on our perspective and that any psychology model must evolve or become stagnant. Let us hope we apply knowledge wisely, creatively, and potently, let us hope that we intervene.

Baumeister, R. (1982). A self-presentational view of social Phenomena. Psychological
Bulletin 91, 1 (pp 3-26).

Cialdini, R.B. (1998). Cause of death: Uncertain(ty). In M.H. Davis (ed), Annual
Editions – Social Psychology 98/99 (p. 197-201). Guilford: Dushkin/McGraw-Hill.

Cherry, F. (1995). Kitty Genovese and the culturally embedded theorizing. In The
Stubborn Particulars of Social Psychology (p. 16-29). London: Routeledge.

Clark, R.D. & Word, L.F. (1972). Why don’t bystanders help? Because of ambiguity?
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24(3), p. 392-400.

Darley, J.M. & Teger, A.I. (1973). Do groups always inhibit individuals responses to
potential emergencies? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 26(3), p. 395-

Dickson, E. Emily Dickinson. (1955/1976). These strangers in a foreign world.
Thomas Johnson (Ed.) Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Back Bay Books.

Gado, M. (2007). A Cry in the Night – The Kitty Genovese murder. Retrieved on 18
March 2007 from:

Griffin, J. & Tyrrell, I. (1998). Hypnosis and trace states – A new psychobiological
explanation. HG Publishing for the European Therapy Studies Institute, UK.

Griffin, J. & Tyrrell, I. (2004). Human Givens – A new approach to emotional health
and clear thinking. Human Givens Publishing, UK.

Latané, B. & Darley, J.M. (1993). Social determinants of bystander Intervention in
emergencies. In B. Byers (Ed), Readings in Social Psychology – Perspectives and Method (p. 244-253). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Latané, B. & Darley, J.M. (1968). Group inhibition of bystander intervention in
emergencies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 10(3), p215-221.

LeDoux, J. E. (1992). Emotion and the Amygdala. In J. P. Aggleton, (Ed.), The
Amygdala – Neurobiological Aspects of Emotion, Memory, and Mental Dysfunction. Wiley-Liss, Inc, New York, 339-351.

LeDoux, J. E. (1998). The Emotional Brain – The Mysterious Underpinnings of
Emotional Life. Touchstone, New York.

Levine, P. (1997). Waking the Tiger – Healing Trauma. North Atlantic Books,

Schwartz, S.H. and Gottlieb, A. (1976). Bystanders reaction to violent theft: A crime
in Jerusalem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(6), p. 1188-1199.

Shotland, R.L. & Straw, M.K. (1976). Bystander response to an assault: When a man
attacks a woman. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34(5), p. 990-999.

Television Documentary on Bystanders. (TV 1, 18 March 1998).

Williams, R.N. & Gantt, E.E. (1998). Intimacy and heteronomy: On ground psychology in
the ethical. Theory and Psychology, 8, p. 253-267.

Williams, R.N. (2002). Seeking social grounds for social psychology. Theory and
Science. Retrieved on February 28 2007, from:

Williams, R.N (1992). The human context of agency. American Psychologist, 47(2), p

Wikipedia, (2007). Kitty Genovese. Retrieved on March 12 2007, from:

Posted by: Eleanor


4 responses to “Bystander Intervention

  1. I am currently carrying out my MA in dance/installation/film in New Zealand Aotearoa. My Abstract is called, ‘In the Company of Strangers’. You will find this on my blog site above. I am very interested in the essay above, in terms of the enquiry into not only the psychology of the roles existing in bystander intervention, but the potential dramas (albeit laden with risk and notwithstanding more than a respectful nod to Genovese) inherent in the observable physical occupation of self and ‘other’ roles in public spaces and the subsequent dynamics which may emerge. My work is currently documenting subtle dance descriptions on the edge of crowd awareness in high street/back-alley environments to effect a process of empirically-gathered experiential data: dance movement which seeks to intervene in the everyday patterns of street movements. Bystander intervention is not only relevant here but actively sought and recorded.

  2. I am, at the risk of appearing absurd, going to comment on my own post! What I want to do is to contextualise human givens and bystander intervention into a broader social context. Some readers maybe familiar with J.M. Darley’s 2004, discussion ‘Social organization [sic] for the production of evil’ (reading from J.T. Jost & J.Sidanius [Eds.], Political Psychology, pp 383-410). I would like to paraphrase Darley’s conclusions with regard to stopping situations of grave atrocity (such as genocide and I would include illegal invasion of another country) and the downfall of social organisations occurring. He points out what others in a variety of fields also have (such as Ward Churchill ‘A Little matter of Genocide: holocaust and denial in the Americas, 1942 to the present’) that it is important to establish a criteria of sorts that allows for the recognition and prevention of events of the aforementioned catastrophic ilk.

    Another important issue that he raises is the role of the bystander. By this he means those outside of the organisation who observe events unfolding and although these witnesses have free will they react with indifference. Darley relates this to his and Lantané’s earlier work on bystander intervention, that the indifference of bystanders signals a lack of protest and allows atrocities to grow in scale unabated. During this continuum, (Darley paraphrases Staub here) bystanders rationalise what is occuring and thus justify their own inaction. It is therefore often other ‘elements’ within the society that call a stop to the escalation of unjust acts into a full-blown cataclysm.

    Returning to the broader context of ‘evil’ social organisations, Darley states that there are three kinds of evil in an organisation, those that are genocidal and evil from the outset (two examples are; the Nazi regime led by Adolf Hitler and more controversially Christopher Columbus and the invasion of the New World, see the aforementioned 1997 W. Churchill book); social organisations with intentional destructive motives; and other destructive social organisations that grow unintentionally. In this camp are included manufacturers (selling vehicles that have a known dangerous fault), pharmaceutical companies (selling drugs that are found to be harmful after sales have occurred), and military groups under specific orders (such Lt. Calley and his Platoon involved in the My Lai massacre in Vietnam). What all of these unintentional destructive organisations have in common is that they did not set out to deliberately cause harm but unintentionally through a variety of occurrences, such as miscommunication, neglect, stress, hurried work etc, terrible things eventuated. Cars were built with an engineering fault that caused horrifying deaths; drugs were prescribed to pregnant women that caused a high percentage of cancer for the baby as it grew older; orders were carried out with the wrong intelligence that caused slaughter of innocent people, but these things were not intentional from the outset. What is considered evil though, is when these things are discovered that a cover up is used to avoid admitting the past harm and in doing so the organisations commit themselves to future harms.

    ‘Intentional harm’ social organisations have ethics that are so suspect that they are intentionally abusing their cliental or rival organisations (enemies) in order to financially profit. These organisations corrupt their members by convincing them to act in accordance with the organisations own highly questionable ethics.

    Darley suggests that individuals can avoid the social pressures that lead to participation in evil (by being an intervening bystander), but what of social organisations, particularly those outside of the military (the military has guidelines in place already, although they are perhaps questionable)? Darley has no clear answer to this question but summarises that there are several social psychologists working on such answers. As I have already mentioned there are anthropologists also working on this question, as well as prescribing accountability where it belongs for the actions of those that violate human rights. The human givens ideology (as stated in their charter) as an evolving, holistic organisation is working to instill social change on a vast level: addressing government bodies, companies/corporations, education, as well as mental health systems that it cannot be anything but a potent example of how to combat ‘evil’ in our world. Implementing healthy organisational systems that do not limit the innate physical and emotional needs of the individuals works to achieve this. In the case of unintentional social organisations that find themselves in horrifying situations, if there had better systems in place for their staff, perhaps there would not be so many variables collating to create the negative circumstances. I would say that the human givens movement is one of those ‘other elements’ of society that combat evil in our world.

    That human givens therapists are willing to give up their personal time and money to train people on the front lines of trauma (see: is in my view is a clear statement of a social organisation devoted to the highest good and not the gain of the organisation. That members of the organisation coherently and without emotional arousal speak out about organisational behaviour that they see as detrimental to the health of their nation (and by natural extension, in this world of glaobalisation, global health) shows a commitment to being interventionist where events are unfolding in a precarious way. That the Human Givens Foundation is charity steadfastly focused on resarching and implementing ways in which to improve mental heath, education, and social services further demonstrates this organisation’s exceptional intentions. In my view those that involve themselves in the human givens approach are dedicated bystanders unwilling to allow the continuation of the detrimental path humanity has been undertaking. Of course I am guilty of being a hopeless idealist but I am happy with this position.

    Fiona Gillespie
    16 April, 2007

  3. very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

  4. Ernesto miciletto

    i dunno if i will get any answer, but do u know where i can find the documentary “Bystanders” from new zealand 1998? Cheers

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