Diffusion Of Responsibility Essay

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At approximately 3 a.m. on March 13, 1964, in New York City, thirty-eight people watched from their apartments as a young woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death outside. None of them moved to help her, despite the fact that her murder was a slow one, in which she actually escaped and was recaptured at least twice. The first call to police was finally made at 3:50 a.m., at which time the victim was already dead.

The incident sparked a lot of outrage and a fair amount of pop psychology media speculation as well. Nobody was sure why her neighbors did nothing, but explanations ranged from secretly held hostile impulses caused by the frustration of living in the city to simple apathy.

Rather than simply blaming the bystanders, two social psychologists, John Darley and Bibb Latané, decided to experimentally examine the social factors involved in such situations. In a series of experiments, they simulated emergencies with varied conditions and observed what happened. In one study, for example, participants filled out questionnaires either alone or in groups of three. While they worked, white smoke was pumped into the room through a vent. Left alone, most participants quickly reported the smoke to the experimenter. In groups, however, most did not seek help, even when the smoke became so thick that participants rubbed their eyes and waved smoke away from their faces while working. In a variation on this, participants sat in cubicles and interacted with other college students over an intercom (for confidentiality, they were told). Some were assigned to two-person discussions, while others were put in larger groups, but all sat alone and only communicated with others over the intercom. Early in the discussion, an accomplice of the experimenter casually mentioned that he had a seizure disorder. When his turn to speak came again, he proceeded to fake a seizure, including choking sounds and the stuttered phrase “I’m gonna die.” The results were similar to those found in the white smoke study. Virtually all participants who believed they were in a two-person discussion left the room immediately to seek help, whereas in the larger groups, participants were far less likely to intervene, and those who did take action waited substantially longer before doing so. In these and many follow-up studies, a clear pattern emerged: the more bystanders there are, the less likely any individual is to offer help. In other words, the mere presence of other people inhibits helping behavior. This pattern of results became known as the bystander effect.

Darley and Latané described the conditions under which bystanders will give help as follows:

  1. they must notice the event
  2. they must interpret the event as an emergency c. they must take responsibility for helping
  3. they must decide to intervene
  4. they must act on that decision

The presence of others can act to interfere with any of these conditions, but the overall effect of other people is diffusion of responsibility—the tendency, in groups, for individual bystanders to assume that someone else will help. When the bystander is alone, and therefore feels solely responsible for the welfare of the person in trouble, action is far more likely. In a group, each member’s self-perceived responsibility decreases steadily as the size of the group increases.

The man pictured in the center shows the classic facial features associated with Down syndrome.


  1. Latané, B., and Darley, J. M. The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn’t He Help? New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1970.

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