What keeps people from helping each other? It’s a psychological phenomenon called diffusion of responsibility (sometimes known as the bystander effect). The 1964 attack on Kitty Genovese, witnessed by no less than 38 bystanders, prompted the first serious look at why people fail to help during an emergency. “I didn’t let him,” recalled Marjorie Koshkin, speaking of her husband’s desire to call the police. “I told him there must have been 30 calls already.” Kitty’s assailant fled and returned several times that evening in an attack that ultimately culminated in sexual assault and murder.
When people fail to act, it’s often because they assume someone else will intervene. This diffusion of responsibility also explains why some perpetrators of violence feel free from blame when they believe they are simply “carrying out orders.” In the case of the Milgram Experiment, shown below, participants continued behaviors that they felt were wrong because a person of authority instructed them to do so. In this particular case, the participant or “teacher” delivered increasingly violent shocks to a supposed student when the student gave incorrect answers. Watch how far people will go when not held accountable for their actions.
Notice that the “teacher” wasn’t comfortable with the experiment, yet he continued to administer shocks. At around the 3 minute and 10 minute mark, the experimenter takes full responsibility for any injury the "learner" sustains. When acting anonymously and without accountability, even the most courteous and conscientious people are capable of the most unspeakable acts. Milgram’s experiment will be relevant throughout time because it offers a unique glimpse into the psyche and the dangers of conformity.
Let’s turn back to our bystanders – the everyday man and woman on the street. What happens when a child is in a dangerous situation? Will people stop to help or will they simply follow the herd? Diffusion of responsibility dictates that every single person will walk by without taking action.
The holiday season is a great time to find hope and faith in humanity. Here’s mine. Those two guys were just awesome! They risked their own safety to help a complete stranger. Now, I’m not saying that you have to put yourself in harm’s way to help. You too can make a difference by calling the police when necessary, stopping to offer help, paying attention when someone is in need, and being a friend to others. These are things that any of us can do! So, remember that your small gesture can make a world of difference.
For more information about Kitty Genovese: A Cry in the Night - The Kitty Genovese Murder.
For more information about the Milgram Experiment: Milgram's Experiment on Obedience to Authority.