passing the buck when one becomes two

March 13, 1964. This date means nothing to most of us; some of us weren’t even born yet. Kew Gardens, Queens, New York City. The same goes for this venue, some of us have never been there. Yet for one Catherine “Kitty” Genovese, it was the date and place that ensured her death. The 28-year-old was in her apartment parking lot when a man who wore a face she didn’t recognize came up to her, stabbed and raped her before fleeing the scene, leaving her to her own demise.

While this may seem like another article reliving the untimely death of an innocent, it is not. Genovese’s story exploits yet another flaw in humanity. Let me explain:

A murder takes place in plain sight at 3:15 AM when Genovese had just returned home, unknowingly followed by her murderer. A murder that is swiftly dismissed by the people after expressing their brief condolences. However, a fortnight later, a New York Times article stated that there were 37 witnesses who either saw or heard the incident, none of which came to the victim’s aid. The same article indicated Genovese had cried out for help, screaming “Oh my god, he stabbed me! Please help me! I’m dying!” several times. But according to reports, the police weren’t alarmed until 3:50 AM, a window of time whereby someone could’ve put a stopper in her death.

Genovese’s plight sparked a wave of outrage among the people – how could bystanders be indifferent to someone clearly in need? As it turns out, indifference and lack of sympathy had nothing to do with the situation; rather, it was the mere presence of others, a phenomenon coined as the bystander effect.

The effect, in a nutshell, says that if you’re in dire need of assistance, you’re better off asking for it in an almost-deserted alleyway compared to a busy thoroughfare because when one person becomes two, and two becomes a crowd, people are more likely to pass the buck.

This theory says that the chances of someone offering help at a scene of trouble and the number of bystanders share an inverse relationship, meaning the more people there are around us, the less inclined we are to take action because the responsibility of helping is equally diffused among everyone present. This diffusion of responsibility is one reason why the effect takes place, with every passerby thinking the same thing: somebody must have done something by now, so I don’t have to do it.

Groupthink is the second reason. This herd mentality is our inane need to constantly fit in and make sure our actions or inactions are similar to those around us. When nobody in an audience reacts, we perceive that as a signal to not intervene. In relation to Genovese’s murder, witnesses thought they were watching a “lovers’ quarrel” instead of a murder, simply because “no one else did anything, so it probably wasn’t dangerous”.

To test the effect, a research team from the University of Copenhagen hired actors to tumble in a crowded street, where there would’ve been plentiful witnesses. The experiment was conducted twice: once with the actor in business attire and once dressed in a tacky manner. The results found that while the bystander effect proved to be true, there were also other factors at play, such as clothing. It took a relatively shorter time (a few seconds) for someone to help the actor in a business suit than it did the actor in shabby clothing (four minutes).

That’s not all, it turns out that objects and props can also act as public signals to either attract or repel aid. The same research team also administered another version of the experiment wherein the actor collapses on a street clutching onto a can of beer. The beer acts as a signal for passersby to ignore the man’s clear need for help because we have developed a stigma toward somebody holding a beer can: “They were drinking, this is the aftermath”. The same experiment found that if the beer can wasn’t in the scene, people rushed to help quicker; we often neglect how small social cues such as a beer can could elicit various responses.

For a person to step forward and act, he or she has to take on a higher level of personal responsibility than the equally assumed portion among the crowd. This is why occupations such as medical staff, police officers, and firefighters are trained to ignore bystander effects and dive headfirst to help whenever an emergency arises.

bystander effect
The Bystander Effect.

So, is there a solution to this effect? Thankfully, yes. Simply being aware of the effect will cause us to be more attentive in future situations. That way, we are more likely to break the cycle and be the first to extend a hand when help is needed. In another setting, if you happen to be the one who needs help, directing your assistance toward one specific person will increase the chances of them coming to your aid because that particular person has to shoulder full responsibility.

But let’s not conclude for a second that the bystander effect only takes place in real life. Nowadays, many things that go on in the real world happen simultaneously online. As Vincent Hendricks wrote in an article for The Conversation, “In the 21st century, when our thoroughfares are online and on social networks, millions of people are effectively passing each other by every minute”. This is not something we are usually aware of; many of us view ourselves as alone when we’re surfing the web, assuming the screen is a barrier between ourselves and others. Yet, with the rise of social media, we spiral deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of the bystander effect every day.

Millions of posts, photos, and videos are uploaded daily, some harmless and beneficial, but a big percentage of those content showcase violence, discrimination, bullying, and other frowned-upon behaviors. When such content shows up on our feed, what do most of us do? We either scroll past it or when we feel a sudden surge of injustice, we angry react it. That’s it. We move onto the next thing the internet has to offer.

Even when some people go the extra mile to report inappropriate content, the post would’ve gone viral by then and copies made – nothing can ever truly be removed from the internet. We would think that once a disturbing post gets the attention of enough people, surely somebody will take action; this is, by all means, a logical way of thinking, but what if every single person who comes across the post thinks the same way?

There had been numerous experiments and studies conducted on the topic, yet 43 years after Genovese’s incident, another arose. In 2007, LaShanda Calloway met the same fate of being stabbed to death when she was in a Kansas convenience store. It took a full two minutes before somebody – who wasn’t too busy taking pictures of Calloway or shopping for their snacks – phoned the authorities. The surveillance video that depicted several shoppers stepping over Calloway’s body was simply appalling to watch.

If there is one thing consistent through our ever-changing society, it is our collective refusal to learn from history. This needs to change. If you’ve made it this far, start paying attention to the bystander effect, stop passing the buck and take action; it is the least we can do to honor the memories of Kitty Genovese and LaShanda Calloway.