Monday, October 8, 2007


(Updated May 1, 2017)

I'd been working on a song about bystander intervention and helping, when an article by Rachel Manning and colleagues came out in the September 2007 American Psychologist. The article argues that the popular account of the event that spurred bystander intervention research in social psychology -- the murder of Kitty Genovese -- is wrong. Specifically, claim Manning et al., courtroom and other records are inconsistent with the characterization that there were 38 eyewitnesses to the murder, who took no action.

Manning and colleagues make it abundantly clear, however, that questions about the historical accuracy of how the murder has been reported in no way vitiate the scientific validity of the social psychological studies, by Latané, Darley, and others, that followed: "It does not matter to the bystander effect that the story of the 38 witnesses may be misconceived" (p. 556).

Given that bystander intervention research may now receive greater attention, I've gone ahead and completed my song on the topic...


Lyrics by Alan Reifman
(May be sung to the tune of “Matchmaker,” Bock/Harnick, from Fiddler on the Roof)

Bystander, bystander, will you help out?
You might think so, but research casts doubt,
Latané and Darley identify,
The steps helpers must surmount,

Bystander, bystander, you must decide,
Should you jump in, or move aside?
How you interpret the situation,
Determines if aid is tried,

First, you, must notice what happened,
Decide, next, it's an, emergency,
Am I, the one to take action?
You'll get involved, if you claim all three,

Bystander, bystander, right on the scene,
Something is wrong, that’s what you glean,
How many witnesses, are there with you?
With fewer, you’ll intervene



Latané and Darley's research supported the idea of a decision tree, in which only a constant string of "yes" responses will lead to helping. First, of course, someone must notice the event, then interpret it as an emergency, and then assume responsibility for helping; the presence of many bystanders has been shown to diminish the latter (i.e., diffusion of responsibility). The bystander must also know how to help in the particular situation, and must make the ultimate decision to help.

As suggested by this Wikipedia entry on the "Bystander Effect," research on helping appears to be known best for the number-of-bystanders aspect. The other aspects, such as whether or not someone interprets a situation as an emergency, are important, too, however.

Further Reading

Darley, J.M. & Latané, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 377-383.

Latané, B. & Darley, J.M. (1968). Group inhibition of bystander intervention in emergencies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 10, 215-221.

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

Manning, R., Levine, M., & Collins, A. (2007). The Kitty Genovese murder and the social psychology of helping: The parable of the 38 witnesses. American Psychologist, 62, 555-562.

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