Mind & Body

A New Surveillance Footage Study Shows That Bystanders Help More Often Than We Thought

If you've ever taken a basic psychology class, you probably know the story: In 1964, Kitty Genovese was attacked in front of a large apartment building where, reportedly, 38 witnesses stood by and did nothing. Her story led to a flurry of studies that came to establish what's known as the bystander effect, which says that the more witnesses there are to an incident, the less likely it is that any one of them will step in and help. A team of European researchers took issue with this research and performed their own study. Their results should bring comfort to any would-be victim.

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen

There are many problems with the common telling of the Kitty Genovese story, but here are just a few: Despite the size of the apartment building, it was 3 a.m. and only a handful of people saw what happened; it took place before 911 was even invented, and yet several people did call the police; plus, one man yelled at the attacker and one woman even left her apartment to help, even though she couldn't have known whether the attacker was still there. For a story used to demonstrate the apathy of crowds, it leaves something to be desired.

Still, just because this story has holes, it doesn't mean that the bystander effect isn't real. After Kitty Genovese's murder, study after study looked into the likelihood of any one person stepping in to help in a crowd of witnesses. As a 1981 review of the research stated, "It is concluded that, despite the diversity of styles, settings, and techniques among the studies, the social inhibition of helping is a remarkably consistent phenomenon ... victims are more likely to receive assistance when only a single individual witnesses the emergency."

The researchers on the new study point out that many of these studies were done in an artificial lab setting with assistants pretending to be unhelpful bystanders. The studies that did use real-world examples had results that were all over the map — in one study, 11 percent of bystanders intervened, in another, that number was 74 percent. But their biggest problem was this: If you were being attacked in a crowd of people, would you care about the probability of any given person stepping in to help, or would you care about the probability that someone would help? Chances are, it's the latter. That's a fine but important distinction: The first focuses on the bystander's chances of helping; the second focuses on the victim's chances of getting help.

The Kindness of Crowds

To fill this gap in the research, the team used real-world footage from security cameras and simply counted the number of incidents where bystanders actually stepped in to help. They gathered 219 video clips of aggressive public incidents from surveillance cameras in three urban areas: Amsterdam, the Netherlands; Lancaster, U.K.; and Cape Town, South Africa. The Cape Town footage was especially important because it was an inner-city area known for being dangerous, and the researchers wanted to know if that would have an effect on bystander intervention rates. Trained coders watched the clips, which ranged "from the mildest animated disagreements to grave physical violence," and recorded any instances where a bystander intervened. They also counted the number of bystanders — 16 per event, on average — and the number of interveners.

In the end, they found that at least one bystander intervened in more than 90 percent of all situations, with an average of about 4 intervening bystanders per video clip. Importantly, they found that the more bystanders there were at the scene, the more likely the victim was to get help. The location also didn't matter; all three locations had roughly the same probability of bystander intervention. The team said that this challenges the assumption that people are less likely to help others when they're in urban areas perceived as dangerous since intervening puts them at more risk of danger themselves.

"Therefore, in contrast to the notion that noninvolvement is the norm in urban environments, the high levels of intervention found in this study across different national and urban contexts suggests that involvement is the norm in real-life inner-city public conflicts," they write.

The researchers noted, however, that this doesn't necessarily debunk the bystander effect: Because this study looked at any given situation's chances of someone intervening, not any given bystander's chances, "our research does not evaluate whether bystanders are less likely to provide help when in the presence of other bystanders compared with when they are alone (i.e., the bystander effect)." But for a victim, that's the more important detail. If I'm attacked, will I get help? According to this research, the answer is yes — and the more people around you, the more likely that is.

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For the real account of the Kitty Genovese story, check out "Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America" by Kevin Cook. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer August 9, 2019

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