Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People
The indifference demonstrated by bystanders in the face of other people's suffering has been widely studied, particularly since the murder of twenty-eight-year-old Kitty Genovese on March 13, 1964, in Queens, New York. The murder was witnessed by thirty-eight of the victim's neighbors. During the thirty minutes that it took the killer to complete his act, not one of those thirty-eight people called the police or came to the young woman's aid.
In considering that incident, psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latane wondered if Genovese might have fared better had there been fewer onlookers. The two psychologists then designed a series of experiments to test the hypothesis that the greater the number of people who witness an emergency, the less likely it is that anyone will do anything about it.
In one experiment, New York University students were led, one by one, to small rooms. Each was told that he or she was part of a group of students, all sitting alone in similar rooms, all connected by microphones and headsets. During the course of a discussion about the pressures that students faced, the subjects heard one student--actually a confederate of the experimenters--confess that he was prone to seizures when tense. A few minutes later, subjects heard that same student break down and plead for help. The subjects had been led to believe that no instructor would be monitoring their conversation, so no one hearing the seizure was clearly in charge.
In an article on the experiment published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Darley and Latane reproduced a portion of the victim's speech, the ending of which went as follows: "I-er-if somebody could help me out it would-it would-er-er s-s-sure be-sure be good . . . because-er-there-er-er-a cause I-er-I-uh-I've got a-a one of the-er-sei-er-er-things coming on and-and-and I could reallyer-use some help so if somebody would-er-give me a little h-helpuh-er-er-er-er-er could somebody-er-er-help-er-uh-uh-uh [choking sounds].... I'm gonna die-er-er-I'm ... gonna die-er-help-er-erseizure-er [chokes, then quiet]."
The experiment was designed so that the subjects believed they could not communicate directly with each other-all believed that their microphones were turned off when it was not their turn to speak. Some subjects believed that they were part of a two-person group, and that therefore they alone had heard the young man's seizure. Other subjects believed that one other student had also heard the victim's pleas (a three-person group), and still others thought that four other people were listening when the breakdown occurred (a six-person group). The dependent variable was the time elapsed from the start of the victim's fit until the subject sought help. If six minutes passed after the end of the fit and the subject had not left his or her room, the experimenter entered the room and terminated the session.
Darley and Latane's theory about bystanders proved to be correct. All of the subjects who thought that they alone had heard the victim's seizure tried to get help, most leaving their room before the victim had even finished his speech. Eighty percent of those in the three-person groups sought help, albeit it a little more slowly than those in the two-person groups. But only 62 percent of those in the six-person groups left their room, and they moved at a considerably slower pace: 50 percent of the single bystanders bolted from the room within forty-five seconds of the start of the seizure, by which time none of the people in the six-person groups had yet reached the door. Males and females responded to the emergency with almost exactly the same frequency and speed.
Surprisingly, Darley and Latane did not find that the subjects who stayed in their seats were apathetic or unconcerned; in fact, those who did not respond to the emergency seemed more upset than those who did, often asking the experimenter who entered their rooms if the victim was all right. The two psychologists concluded that non-intervening subjects had not responded because they were mired in a state of indecision and internal conflict: "On the one hand, subjects worried about the guilt and shame they would feel if they did not help the person in distress. On the other hand, they were concerned not to make fools of themselves by overreacting, not to ruin the ongoing experiment by leaving their intercom, and not to destroy the anonymous nature of the situation which the experimenter had earlier stressed as important.... Caught between the two negative alternatives of letting the victim continue to suffer or the costs of rushing in to help, the non-responding bystanders vacillated between them rather than choosing not to respond. This distinction may be academic to the victim, since he got no help in either case, but it is an extremely important one for arriving at an understanding of the causes of bystanders' failures to help."
Darley and Latane concluded by saying that individuals are not "non-interveners" because of some flaw in their personality, but rather because responsibility is diffused. As in the murder of Kitty Genovese, isolated individuals, knowing that others were also aware of the emergency but not knowing how those others were responding, did not attempt to intervene because they did not feel personally responsible….
….Darley and Latane's experiments and others inspired by the Genovese murder have led psychologists to conclude that people tend to look to others to define events. Someone who sees something that may be an emergency looks to see if other witnesses are also alarmed. If everyone seems calm or indifferent, the observer often concludes that no emergency is taking place. The group defines the event, and most people follow the spoken and unspoken norms of the group and are unwilling to risk the embarrassment-of overreacting in public. Furthermore, even if people recognize that they are witnessing an event in which help is called for, they remain unsure who is responsible for providing that help: in a group of strangers there is no captain. Responsibility is therefore diffused, and so is the guilt felt by those who do nothing….
Psychologists are also quick to point out that helping often conflicts with norms or rules of appropriate behavior. A man escorting a woman to a dark place in a park could seem like a cause for alarm, but it is considered perverse and impolite to follow a couple into the bushes. Speaking out for a man unjustly imprisoned sounds noble in the abstract, but when that man is from one of the torturable classes, those who speak for him can expect few pats on the back.
The Chicago cases seem to speak to all of these points. It wasn't a case of five people hearing a seizure and doing nothing or acting slowly; it was a case of millions of people knowing of an emergency and doing nothing. People looked about, saw no great crusade forming, saw protests only from the usual agitators, and assumed there was no cause for alarm. Responsibility was diffused. Citizens offended by torture could easily retreat into the notion that they lived in a just world, that the experts would sort things out, that the press, prosecutors, the judiciary, the legislature, or the police department's Office of Professional Standards would take care of the matter….
Amherst professor Dr. Ervin Staub, perhaps the world's foremost authority on bystanders, has staged his own experiments designed to identify the qualities of those who help during emergencies. In one of those experiments, described in "Helping a Distressed Person: Social, Personality, and Stimulus Determinants" (a chapter in the book Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, edited by L. Berkowitz), male undergraduates filling out a questionnaire became aware of moaning coming from the next room. Some of the students believed they were working on a timed task, while others had been given no directions concerning time. If the student went into the room to discover the source of the noise, he found another male undergraduate complaining that his stomach was "killing him" and that he had run out of pills. If the subject did not investigate the noise, the allegedly ill confederate eventually entered the testing room, mentioned his ailment and his lack of pills, and asked if he could sit on a couch nearby.
Some of those who helped the ailing student were so enthusiastic that, in an attempt to get medicine at a nearby pharmacy, they ran down twelve flights of stairs rather than wait for an elevator, and one student was so fast that the experimenters didn't catch up with him until he actually got to the drugstore. Those helpers, however, were a small minority. In the sample of 122 students, 73 percent did little or nothing.
While other psychologists have had a hard time gathering results that show any correlation between personality and helping behavior, Staub found a strong correlation in this particular experiment. Subjects who valued cleanliness highly were generally less helpful. Staub interpreted this to indicate that college students "who endorse cleanliness may be highly conventional, and conventional values seem to be different from concern for others." Students who ranked ambition highly as a value were less willing to interrupt their work on the assigned task for longer periods of time (Staub believed that the more ambitious may have experienced more conflict in determining a course of action). The subjects whose personality profiles showed a significant prosocial orientation were more likely to help, but only when the circumstances permitted it: the prosocial students who believed they were working on a timed task were less responsive than those who were unconcerned about the passage of time. Subjects who valued courage highly were more apt to initiate action in response to the moans, those who were taken with adventure and novel experiences seemed more likely to initiate help, and those who valued helpfulness tended to be more responsive when they were asked to collect a prescription.
Excerpt from Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People by John Conroy (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2000)