Why You Will Fail to Act in an Emergency

On a cold winter night in 1964, Catherine ‘Kitty’ Genovese was attacked outside her apartment in Queens, New York. Coming back from work at 3 a.m., she was stabbed in the back but managed to scare away her attacker. Several minutes later her attacker returned, raped her, and ultimately killed her.

The New York Times reported that 37 or 38 people witnessed the murder, but not a single one of them called the police. This is a murder that took place over the course of half an hour, in front of dozens of witnesses, with no calls to the police.

At the time, this was baffling to behavioral scientists. No one could explain how that many people could witness such a thing and not help her.

No one except the killer. When asked why he would risk doing that in front of so many witnesses, he replied ‘I knew they wouldn’t do anything, people never do’.  Obviously he didn’t know why, but it turns out he was mostly right.

The widespread publicity around this story sparked research into what became known as the Bystander Effect.

A quick side note: While researching this article I was surprised to learn that the story as I’ve related it above (and as it’s depicted in most descriptions) is not entirely accurate. While that is what was reported by the NYT, and what sparked the research, later investigations showed a very different picture.

  • There were probably closer to 12 witnesses, none of whom saw the whole attack. Most couldn’t see the attack at all, they only heard what sounded like a domestic dispute.
  • Only 1 witness saw that she was stabbed in the initial attack, and I couldn’t verify if that person ever called the police.
  • The police were called after the initial attack, but were only told a woman was ‘beat up, but got up and was staggering around.’ They didn’t respond.
  • After the second, fatal attack, the police were called and arrived within minutes.
  • One witness was already there comforting Kitty even though she couldn’t have known that the attacker had left.

While this case is not exactly accurate, it is the story used in pretty much every social psychology textbook, as it’s a very simple (and extreme) description of the Bystander Effect.

The Bystander Effect

Let’s say you witness a tragedy: a car accident, a violent domestic dispute, or even something more mundane, like a child scraping their knee. If you’re the only witness, you’re probably going to do something.

But if there are lots of witnesses, you’re less likely to get involved.

And that makes sense. If 10 people watch something happen, it usually just takes one person to help, so 90% of the time you don’t have to do anything at all. Right?

That certainly sounds true, and in some ways it is. But when everyone feels the same way, that someone else will probably help, then nobody will act. So counterintuitively, if you fall and hit your head it might be safer to do it in front of 1 person than in front of 10, and not just because of the embarrassment factor.

When there are more people present, it’s easy to look around and think ‘oh, no one else is doing anything, so I don’t have to either.’ And that’s the problem of the Bystander Effect.

There are a few reasons to explain why this happens, the big ones being:

  • Diffusion of responsibility. You’re less likely to take responsibility for action or inaction when others are present.
  • Group cohesion. Members of a group are more likely to stick within the group than break out of it. If nobody else is doing anything, you won’t want to break the mold.

It’s an interesting effect, and there are all sorts of neat social psych experiments showing how we react to it. But there’s no need to go read social psychology papers to see it in action (you probably don’t find those as interesting as I do).

What Would You Do? is a prime time TV show on ABC that has been running for 7 seasons so far. The entire premise of the show is to set up some scenario in public and see if the bystanders respond, all recorded on hidden cameras of course. They mostly try to test various public prejudices (e.g. have a black male steal a bike in a public park and see if anyone responds, then do the same thing with a white female and compare the responses) but at its core it is an examination of the Bystander Effect.

(If you’re curious about the above scenario, the black male was reported immediately every time they tried it, but some of the bystanders actually helped the attractive white woman steal the bike, even after she told them she was stealing it.)

If you find it hard to believe that you wouldn’t respond in an emergency, watch that show sometime, I guarantee it will change your mind.

So What Would You Do?

A few months ago I was vacationing with my family in Savannah, GA. Savannah has a relatively small and walkable historic district so we spent a lot of time walking around the city.

At one point as we were walking together we witnessed a car accident. At least one person was injured, but it didn’t look life threatening. Not counting the people involved there were maybe 5 or 6 people there as it happened.

My mother called 911 immediately, but I’m not sure if anyone else did, including the 6 or 7 other people who walked over to see what was going on. A couple other people were on the phone but they may have been on the phone beforehand.

Now my mom did the right thing. She saw that no one next to her had called 911 yet, so she did herself. Good job Mom!

Because of where everybody was standing on the street, several of the witnesses had no way of knowing if anyone else was getting help but still did nothing except watch. They assumed somebody else was doing it. In fact, I’ll admit that that was my first instinct too, even though I really should have known better.

The truth is it takes a lot of training to make sure you’re going to act correctly in an emergency. EMTs, nurses, and flight attendants are known for their cool-headedness in emergencies because they’ve been trained for it. You probably haven’t, so you’re probably going to react slowly in a real emergency.

In most cases, the hardest thing to overcome will be your natural inclination to stick with the crowd.

I won’t pretend to be an expert at dealing with emergency situations, but here’s my 2 cents worth of advice on dealing with the Bystander Effect in an emergency.

If you are the one that needs help

Perhaps the most useless thing to do if you need help and are surrounded by people is to yell ‘someone call 911/help me/etc’. It puts the responsibility of taking that action on everyone there, playing right into the hands of the Bystander Effect. So don’t do that.

Instead, single out 1 person from the crowd and give them specific instructions. More specific instructions are more likely to elicit a response. ‘Come here’ or ‘call 911’ is much better than ‘help me’.

By singling out 1 person from the crowd, the diffusion of responsibility that cripples the crowd is gone. That one person is now responsible for providing help, and it could make all the difference for you.

If you are witness to some emergency

The first researchers to demonstrate the Bystander Effect (John Darley and Bibb Latane) noted that bystanders go through five stages of reacting to an emergency.

  1. Notice that something is going on
  2. Interpret the situation as being an emergency
  3. Determine their degree of responsibility
  4. Determine the form of assistance
  5. Implement the action choice

Step 3, the degree of responsibility felt by each person, is the tricky one; that’s where the Bystander Effect will get you. If other people are there you will have a smaller degree of responsibility.

But you know this now. You know that your brain is kind of stupid, and doesn’t always do the right thing.

And knowledge is power. If you ever catch yourself going through these steps in an emergency, just ignore everything that tells you that you don’t have much responsibility. Skip calculating step 3 entirely, always just assume that on a scale of 1 – 10 your ‘degree of responsibility’ is stuck on 11.

If you recognize it’s an emergency ask yourself ‘What do I need to do?‘ instead of ‘Do I need to do anything?’.

Obviously the real difficulty is actually recognizing you’re in that situation, but unfortunately a blog post can only help so much with that.

Just try to remember to be bold, and unafraid to go against the crowd. One day you may just save a life.