Be skeptical about callous bystander stories

Some readers may have seen the story about a woman who was raped on a SEPTA commuter train in Philadelphia while other people on the train either did nothing or even took videos of it. I found this hard to believe and felt that there must be more to the story and so suspended judgment. Now later accounts suggest that the initial account of callous bystanders is incorrect and that the story is more complicated.

Some of us may remember the awful story back in 1964 of Kitty Genovese, who was murdered on a street while people living in the buildings reportedly ignored her screams. That story turned out to be not true but created an enduring myth about callous bystanders.

The 1964 murder of Genovese in New York City rose to international notoriety after a New York Times report claimed that nearly 40 people witnessed her being attacked and didn’t try to help her. The incident prompted extensive study, and the so-called “bystander effect” – a notion that when everyone thinks that someone else will act, nobody does – became de rigueur in psychology coursework.

Many years later, it emerged that the Times’ description of bystanders was incorrect. Far fewer people had actually witnessed Genovese’s murder than was reported and some did contact authorities. One of Genovese’s neighbors went out to help her, cradling the dying 28-year-old while waiting for paramedics. Most glaringly, an ambulance came to the scene “precisely because neighbors had called for help”, the New Yorker said in explaining how the original narrative was debunked.

Indeed, present-day research on bystanders stands in opposition to initial police accounts about the Septa passengers. A study based on closed-circuit television footage of 200 violent crimes across three countries found that “in 90% of those cases, bystanders did intervene”, explained Elizabeth Jeglic, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

“So the bystander effect, as we had known it or had taught it for decades, may not be applicable today,” Jeglic said. “There are various factors that go into people acting and reacting, but for the most part, if the crime is clear, and it’s a serious crime, in almost all cases people will intervene.”

When bystanders are worried about their own safety, or physically incapable of intervening, they might step in by going for help or calling the police. Some have hypothesized that bystanders’ filming might even be an attempt at intervention. “They may be trying to help in videotaping it because it may be helpful in the prosecution of the crime later on,” Jeglic said.

Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter journalism institute in St Petersburg, Florida, said the concept of “master narrative” – effectively, cultural motifs that really stick – helps explain why the initial story resonated, even if facts ultimately don’t add up.

“That’s what makes it a master narrative – other stories are rejected as false or misleading or misinformation if they don’t fit the particular narrative,” said Clark, who has written about and discussed the Genovese case. Genovese’s story appeared to prove a story about “the loss of community, urban isolation and alienation”, not to mention the decline of good samaritanism.

The Genovese story created an enduring myth about callous bystanders that continues to this day. For some reason, people seem only too willing to believe the worst about our fellow human beings, and the way the SEPTA story spread shows that the myth remains strong.

However it has made me skeptical about such stories and I usually wait for a while to see what new information emerges.


  1. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    The bystander effect does still have some validity from the research I’ve seen, but the problem can be seen even if you just think about the Genovese story on its own.

    The most common explanation for the bystander effect among psychologists *is not* apathy: it’s fear of having done something redundant. And it is a valid fear. I wouldn’t want to be at the electric company’s line when there is an outage that everyone calls on their cell phone to report!

    And then there’s tons of other factors that real people will experience. Yes, fear of being themselves put into danger is one, but there’s lots of others. There is a widespread fear of legal entanglement that ties into perceptions of how litigious a society is. There is a privacy norm and it is an important one.

    From my experience, I think one of the biggest ones is people feeling that they don’t have the expertise to help. People get scared in first aid emergencies, for example. It’s not actually that great for someone who hasn’t taken a first aid class to just randomly try some interventions, and the switch to compression-only was precisely so that the population could do a good enough job without the additional worry of the complications involved in breathing assistance. When dealing with a violent criminal, who’s to say the guy doesn’t have a gun you don’t see, or could escalate if confronted, or has unknown cohorts? Do we really want to have a society where everyone is prepared to be a vigilante?

    And it keeps going. In my mind, the correct way of thinking about the problem is empowerment. If there’s a specific thing you want to encourage people to do, invest into education to get them to do it. 9/11, for example, has made sure to tell everyone to call if they need help. We’d rather have frivolous and redundant calls than people being afraid to call in.

  2. JM says

    I live near Philly and at work we had a police sponsored class on how to deal with violent and potentially violent emergencies at work. The instructions were to alert the police, follow police instructions, get away if possible and otherwise to hide. It was real heavy on not doing anything or showing any initiative yourself because it might be risky.
    When of the things that had crossed my mind when I read about the Septa attack is if any of them had been taught by the police to do nothing?

  3. Ridana says

    There’s also not wanting to “cry wolf” if you’ve misunderstood the situation, and people get their cues from each other and the environment as to whether or not the situation is an emergency. Years ago we had a fire situation at work, where there was only smoke, but no flames. We weren’t sure if the “proper” thing in that case was to call 911 or pull the alarm (I am ever hesitant to call 911 unless there’s no question someone’s in immediate danger of permanent injury or death, and I personally felt reluctant to break the damn glass on the alarm in case there was no life-threatening danger! Could we please make fire alarms you don’t have to damage to activate?). Someone finally pulled the alarm…and nothing happened. Because the alarm had been deactivated locally in the building (i.e., the fire department received the alert, but we did not) to discourage people setting them off (that was fixed promptly and some heads rolled)!
    So now we have a situation where there are no flames and no visual or auditory cues to prompt people into evacuation mode other than the hazy smoke in the air, and apparently that was not enough to override our collective fear of looking stupid for over-reacting. It was like we’d had all our self-preservation instincts short-circuited by fire drills and could no longer properly respond unless all the pieces signaling an emergency were present. Some people actually tried to go back to work even as the haze thickened, until the safety officer finally told everyone to get the hell out already (i.e., in our heads it was ok to do so once we’d been given permission in lieu of the normal cues). It was all so bizarre I still can’t get over it (which is why I might’ve already told this story here before).
    So yeah, bystander syndrome (maybe it just needs a new name) may not be a symptom of indifference or callousness, but there’s no doubt in my mind that there’s a real phenomenon that prevents many people from acting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *