Knowing This About Human Psychology Can Save Your Life


No Bystander Help for Murder Victim

In March 1964, Catherine Genovese was killed on her street in a late-night attack as she returned from work in Queens New York.

Although in a city as big as New York, many homicides take place, this was not an ordinary homicide.

For more than half an hour 38 law-abiding, respectable citizens in Queens watched a killer chase and stab a woman in three different attacks on the same street.

Twice the sudden turning on of their bedroom lights and their voices interrupted the killer and scared him off. But each time he returned, sought her out and stabbed her repeatedly.

Not even a single person called the police during the attack. One witness called police after the woman was dead.

Why Wouldn’t Good People Help? A Cold Society?

The investigators and the detectives were shocked and baffled. Why did so many good people fail to act under those circumstances?

Did the observers fear to get involved in the situation? Were they afraid?

It doesn’t seem to be the case. All it takes is a simple anonymous phone call.

Could that be a city-caused apathy? There is a notion that hardships of modern life make us cold.

When you are surrounded by so many people all the time, to prevent them from interfering with you too much, you isolate yourself. You become indifferent.

Was that the real reason why Catherine Genovese didn’t get help?

Although it may seem like this is not really an isolated case. Such cases happen with more frequency than you may realize.

Reasons Why Bystanders Don’t Help….Sometimes

Psychologists think there are two reasons why a bystander is unlikely to help in an emergency situation when there are other bystanders that are present.

Notice that bystanders tend to not help only when there are other bystanders that are present. This phenomenon has to do with a group of people.

Dilution of Personal Responsibility

The first likely reason is that when you witness something in a group setting, your personal responsibility gets diluted. You think that perhaps someone else will call police or emergency. Perhaps someone else has already called.

Everyone thinks someone else will help or has helped and no one helps.

Uncertainty About Situation, Is It Really an Emergency?

The second reason is a little bit tricky. It involves uncertainty about the situation.

In situations when you come across someone laying on the floor, could that be a heart attack victim or just a drunk person sleeping?

When you notice people quarreling, could that be an assault requiring police intervention or just a household spat where intervention is unwelcome.

In such situations of uncertainty, the natural tendency is to look around and look at the actions of others for clues. You try to learn from the actions of other witnesses in determining what to do next about the situation at hand.

What may end up happening is again, everyone in the group is looking at the others for clues and they all may end up making the wrong judgment.

In a research study, a student who pretended to be having an epileptic seizure was helped 85 percent of the time when only one bystander was present but only 31 percent of the time when there were five bystanders present.

The point is that there are many layers to human psychology. There are multiple invisible forces that dictate your behavior at any given instance.

At times, your behavior may appear very irrational on the surface.

More importantly, how would you prevent yourself to be a victim who doesn’t get help if you ever found yourself in such a situation?

Given the insight we have in possible reasons why bystanders may not help, you can try to address the core problems.

There are two problems here. One is that of dilution of responsibility. Everyone thinks others may have already done something about the situation and no one does anything.

One is that of dilution of responsibility. Everyone thinks others may have already done something about the situation and no one does anything.

The second problem is that of the uncertainty. The group of bystanders can be uncertain whether it is really an emergency situation or not.

How to Save Yourself In an Emergency

Following is what you can specifically do to address both of the above-mentioned problems.

  • Isolate one individual from the group/crowd of bystanders.
  • Stare at the person.
  • While staring, point directly at the person and nobody else, removing all doubts about who you are pointing to.
  • While pointing at the person, speak to the person.
  • Be very specific about what you say to the person.
  • For example, “Hey you sir, in the red jacket, I need help. Call ambulance.” Or whatever is appropriate for the situation. But be very specific.

How Not to Be an Apathetic Bystander

Here is where awareness can help. The real problem is that you easily become subject to unconscious urges.

From the point of view of awareness, it can trump the unconscious behavior of becoming paralyzed under uncertain circumstances and seeking social proof.

When you find yourself in a group of bystanders and uncertain about the emergency, you don’t make assumptions.  You don’t look at others, you go and take action.

You go and find out whether the person laying on the ground is just a drunk sleeping or a person having a stroke or heart attack. You give the person the benefit of a doubt.


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