Chapter 2

Seeing and Thinking Sociologically

Sociologists at Work


Bibb Latane and John Darley

Why Don't People Help?

In the early morning hours of March 13, 1964, a woman named Kitty Genovese was brutally stabbed to death in front of her New York apartment.

As we all know, murders are not uncommon in New York City or any other American city for that matter. What made this case troubling was the fact that about 40 people either heard her scream for help or watched her being stabbed from their apartment windows. No one called the police until about 35 minutes after the attack had begun.1

When the story appeared in the newspaper, the public was outraged. How could people be so insensitive to the suffering of another? Why didn't anyone help her? Some newspaper editors and psychiatrists at the time blamed the behavior on "bystander apathy" or growing "urban alienation." The story became a metaphor for modern city life.

Others, however, speculated that the failure of people to get involved might be due more to the social influence that bystanders have on each other than to individual callousness.

To test this theory, two social psychologists, Bibb Latane and John Darley, conducted a series of experiments on helping behavior in emergencies.2

In the first experiment the room in which subjects were completing written surveys gradually filled with smoke.

In the second experiment subjects heard a loud crashing noise from an adjoining room, followed by a woman's screaming, "Oh my God, my foot . . . I . . . I . . . can't move it. Oh my ankle. I . . . can't get this . . . thing off me."3

In the third study subjects were participating in a discussion over an intercom when one of them suddenly choked, gasped, and called out for help.

In each situation, the number of individuals present at the time of the emergency was varied so that some subjects were alone and others were with several people.

The researchers consistently found that as the number of bystanders increased, the likelihood that any one of them would help decreased. It appeared that people help others more often and more quickly when alone.

This phenomenon, which is often called the bystander effect, has a couple of sociological explanations.

First, the more bystanders present, the more likely it is that we will assume someone else will help. If we are by ourselves when an emergency occurs, we perceive ourselves to be 100% responsible for taking action. However, when there are 10 bystanders, we each perceive ourselves to have only a tenth of the responsibility. The higher the number of bystanders, the less obligated each individual is likely to feel to intervene.

Second, if we are unsure of our own perceptions and interpretations, or if the situation is ambiguous, we look to others for help in defining what is going on. If others appear calm, we may decide that whatever is happening doesn't require our assistance.

Unfortunately, people often try to avoid showing outward signs of worry or concern until they see that other people are alarmed. This sort of caution encourages others not to define the situation as one requiring assistance and therefore inhibits the urge to help. The larger the number of people who don't seem concerned, the stronger the inhibiting influence. Obviously, helping will not be inhibited if others are showing visible alarm or if the situation is so unambiguous that one doesn't need to look to the reactions of othersˇas with a car accident, for instance.4

Kitty Genovese's neighbors weren't necessarily cruel, cold, or apathetic. They may simply have been victims of social influence, with each looking to others for information, waiting for someone else to define the situation and act. Because everyone was waiting for someone else to do something, no one did anything.

1Seedman, A. A., & Hellman, P. 1975. Chief. New York: Avon.

2Latane, B., & Darley, J. 1970. The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn't he help? New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

3Latane, B., & Rodin, J. 1969. "A lady in distress: Inhibiting effects of friends and strangers on bystander intervention." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 5, 189-202.

4Clark, R. D., III, & Word, L. E. 1972. "Why don't bystanders help? Because of ambiguity." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24, 392-400.

Sociology: Exploring the Architecture of Everyday Life, Fifth Edition
by David M. Newman.
Copyright © 2004 Pine Forge Press, an Imprint of Sage Publications, Inc.