Almost every psychology student knows about Kitty Genovese, the 28-year-old Queens woman who was stabbed to death in 1964. At the time, the New York Times reported that no one had lifted a finger to rescue her. Though that story was later debunked—some people did call the police or shout down the assailant—Genovese’s death provoked a flurry of research on what’s now called the bystander effect. According to decades of experiments, the more people who are observing someone in trouble, the less likely each person is to help.

Today, however, new studies are calling the bystander effect into question—and sketching a somewhat sunnier picture of human nature. Most recently, researchers from the U.K.’s Lancaster University, the University of Copenhagen, and elsewhere captured a series of real-life conflicts on surveillance cameras and found that at least one person in the vicinity came forward to help about 90 percent of the time. The more people who were observing a conflict, the better the chances were that someone from the crowd would step in.

This high intervention rate, says psychologist and lead author Richard Philpot, suggests that humans have a strong desire to resolve conflicts and help those in need. While the new research—contrary to some earlier reports—does not disprove the bystander effect, it does reveal that people intervene in certain dicey situations more often than we assume. Another broad meta-analysis suggests that the more dangerous the situation, the more likely each observer is to intervene.

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“All of us can find example after example from our everyday lives that show some form of the bystander effect in play,” says psychologist and heroism expert Zeno Franco of the Medical College of Wisconsin. “But this is clearly showing [that] the everyday heroism effect, or instinct to act on behalf of others, is also very powerful.”

Bystander behavior, revisited

Bystander intervention has long been hard to measure accurately, in part because past researchers have created scripted or lab-based scenarios or relied on people’s own reports about whether they helped.

Philpot and his team took a different approach. They compiled a set of more than 200 real-life public conflicts from surveillance video in three cities: Lancaster, U.K.; Amsterdam, the Netherlands; and Cape Town, South Africa.

The video cameras tracked spots that hosted crowds of people, such as public transit stations, storefronts, and busy streets. To be included in the study, video clips had to show an aggressive incident without any police or emergency personnel present at the outset.

After all the video was captured, research assistants sifted through the footage and coded it to assess what kind of bystander intervention, if any, was happening. Philpot and his colleagues were surprised at just how often people stepped forward to defuse tense situations. One woman in the video footage stepped in to block a perpetrator’s approach with both hands, while other interveners pulled attackers away from their would-be targets.

The high intervention rate was very similar in the three urban locations studied, suggesting that it may persist across cultures to some extent. “There’s a common assumption that when someone needs help, they are unlikely to be aided by those around them,” Philpot says. “This finding provides reassurance to potential victims of public aggression and the public as a whole.”

The researchers’ ingenious method sets the study apart, says Franco, who is also the board chair of the Heroic Imagination Project. “I’ve always been somewhat suspicious of the typical experiments done in psychology, relying on undergrads as study participants and valuing self-report over observable behavior. It was very satisfying to see objective data from real people, in real unscripted situations.”

Overblown coverage

But, as intriguing as the new findings are, they don’t actually disprove the bystander effect. In an initial media frenzy after the research appeared, headlines blared claims like “Bystander effect: Famous psychology result could be completely wrong.”

Philpot stresses, though, that that’s not what his paper shows. “The bystander effect is an individual measure,” he says—it gauges the chances that a single person will intervene to help someone else in trouble. What he and his colleagues did, on the other hand, was test the collective likelihood that anyone in a crowd would help, which will naturally be higher.

The new work, Franco says, should be considered in light of decades of psychology research that confirms an individual bystander effect.

“The everyday heroism effect, or instinct to act on behalf of others, is very powerful”
―Dr. Zeno Franco

A wide-ranging 2011 meta-analysis features studies showing that in settings as diverse as the laboratory, city streets, and online communities, each person is less likely to help when there are more bystanders. And a University of Southern Indiana study last year found a clear bystander effect in non-life-threatening situations. “I don’t know that I would read this and say this falsifies the bystander effect,” Indiana University social psychologist Sara Konrath says of Philpot’s study.

In fact, the bystander effect might well exist in tandem with the high bystander intervention rates Philpot found. It’s easy to envision a scenario where most people feel little individual responsibility for a victim, but where the victim still gets help in the end, as long as at least one person does feel compelled to intervene.

Casting a broad net

Some experts also doubt whether bystanders are truly as helpful as the new research shows.

“Ninety percent [intervention] seems really high compared to what’s published in other studies,” Konrath says. “I want to believe this is good news, but I don’t know if I can.” She points out that the new study used a very generous definition of bystander intervention. Evaluators coded a wide variety of different behaviors as helping acts, such as yanking brawlers apart, stopping to console a victim, or even just gesturing to an aggressor to calm down. In addition, Philpot and his team did not report what kinds of help people offered or how often they used each approach.

Philpot calls these fair critiques. “We recorded all observable acts where a bystander attempted to calm an aggressor or help a victim,” he says, noting that his team didn’t want to give one kind of intervention precedence over another.

While this may have boosted the helping rates the study found, Philpot also argues that his study may well have under-counted in some ways, missing verbal interventions that could not be gleaned from silent video footage.

Past literature has reported wildly varying rates of bystander action in public conflicts, muddying the outlook further. In one 1983 study, a bystander attempted to resolve conflicts in only 11 percent of cases. But observational studies of barroom attacks reported that a bystander tried to help about a third of the time, and in one recent review of police case files on public attacks, bystanders were found to intervene in almost three-quarters of cases.

Danger provokes intervention, normalcy reduces it

The intervention numbers are likely so wide-ranging because these studies looked at different kinds of conflicts, each involving a variety of factors that shaped people’s behavior. Psychologists think that how much danger people feel affects their decisions about helping, for one thing—and not always in predictable ways.

The 2011 meta-analysis of bystander behavior showed that the more dangerous the situation, the more likely each person was to intervene—a counterintuitive finding that’s ripe for further testing. And in the Lancaster University study, Konrath says, “it could be that the reason they’re finding high helping rates is [the conflict] is more severe than they often find in the lab.”

When people perceive a situation as out of the ordinary, they may be more motivated to help. “You hardly see people fight in public, so it’s unusual,” Konrath says. Conversely, past research hints that the bystander effect is stronger in more pedestrian situations: Picture a line of commuters filing past, untroubled, as a homeless person grimaces in pain on the sidewalk.

“In the beginning, it was shocking. I would give money more frequently,” says Brown University cognitive scientist Oriel FeldmanHall, reflecting on watching New York City’s homeless population balloon. But over time, people tend to become numb to once-disturbing sights and walk on by. “If you see someone on the side of the street that needs help, and that’s a more normative thing, that changes your willingness to help.”

Questions also remain about how bystanders behave in a wider variety of settings around the world. Helping rates in real, unscripted situations might prove to be quite different in clubs, in train stations, and on college campuses. In addition, “there’s still a cultural bias,” says FeldmanHall, pointing out that the surveillance video study took place in three Westernized cities. “What we have to do is make a more systematic approach, extend it out to non-Western cultures.” Researchers are also curious about whether one person’s active intervention makes it more likely that others will follow suit.

The obvious direction for future research will be to clarify exactly which factors affect people’s willingness to help in real-world settings—and the surveillance video technique should be well-suited to this task, since it best captures what happens outside a controlled research environment.

Despite the remaining unknowns—and the lack of evidence to topple the bystander effect—psychologists see plenty of reasons for optimism in the new data.

“This is pointing to some types of situations where people do help more routinely than thought,” Franco says. “That in itself is an important finding.” And if the high baseline rate of helping in public places holds up, it could justify crime prevention tactics that assume active bystandership, like dedicated training that prepares people to intervene.

Assuming that we want to help and make sacrifices for each other could inspire fresh lines of research, too. “With people being so active,” Philpot says, “the future avenue of inquiry should [be], ‘What makes bystander intervention successful or unsuccessful?’” That kind of inquiry could boost not just helping rates, but the odds that victims make it through an ordeal unscathed.

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