Diffusion of responsibility – Why did 38 bystanders do nothing when Kitty was murdered?

When we know others are present, we feel less responsible to act, a phenomenon known as diffusion of responsibility. (Kida p221)

In 1964, a woman named Kitty Genovese was assaulted, raped, and murdered outside her New York City apartment. First, she was stabbed twice, and although she screamed for help, no one came to her rescue, even though 38 witnessed the tragedy. The bystanders didn’t even call the police.

Following this shocking event, researchers wanted to understand why no one responded. After much research, two social psychologists, John Darley and Bibb Latané, published insight into a socio-psychological phenomenon called diffusion of responsibility (also called the bystander effect). 

The bystander effect is the phenomenon in which the presence of people (i.e., bystanders) influences an individual’s likelihood of helping a person in an emergency situation. Specifically, Darley and Latané hypothesized that as the number of people who are present in an emergency situation increases, the less likely it is that any single individual will help someone in need. The findings suggest that in the case of an emergency, when people believe that there are other people around, they are less likely or slower to help a victim because they believe someone else will take responsibility.

For the most part, when we are by ourselves, individuals are eager to help others and look out for one another. But when we get in a group, we’re reluctant to take action. How is it that kind and loving people can see a problem and not respond?

One cause for hesitation may be people’s lack of confidence or competence. Or, they may think others in the group would be better at helping. Another cause is thinking surely, someone else will act. Or, when other bystanders do nothing, people may think there’s no real need to help out.

In May 2020 I was guilty of diffusion of responsibility. I was shopping at Walgreens when a man fell to the floor having a seizure. About five customers, including me, did nothing but stare at him for about a minute. It was at the onset of the Covid pandemic and I remember wondering if this was a violent reaction to the virus, in which case I should not intervene without proper protective gear. I did call 911, but in retrospect I wish I had offered physical help and assurance. 

Have you ever fallen prey to the diffusion of responsibility? 

A more subtle expression of this disorder is the thought—When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible. We’re often passive or slow to respond to a need because it’s not our specific job—it’s everyone’s job. 

In the future I’m going to be more responsive in emergency situations.

19 Replies to “Diffusion of responsibility – Why did 38 bystanders do nothing when Kitty was murdered?”

  1. I remember this case. I looked it up ….”and no one did anything over the 35 minutes the attack was taking place.” NY Times. Amazing that this occured over half an hour.

  2. Excellent story. Promotes a self searching answer. I would say that most people I know would have done at least your immediate response.. call 911.
    Totally understandable with COVID’s just beginning its exposure. Doing more than a call… good real world and timely discussion now. Thank you. Bill Luebs

  3. This is very true Don. In the UK we are told to call the emergency services even if we think others have done so. I do believe a lot of people are frightened of being sued for doing something wrong when they were only trying to help.
    I have cleared my street of snow many times in the past. Passers by have said I shouldn’t be doing it as someone might sue me if I don’t do a good enough job. It’s an urban myth but believed by so many people.
    This human behaviour can also be seen when an organisation recognises a need for some extra helpers. If you ask a roomful of people, no-one thinks it’s aimed at them. Basically, if you ask everyone, you ask no-one. Speaking to individuals takes time but you find out why they will take part or why they really don’t want to. Someone who is half hearted may not do a very good job so it’s better to rule them out.

    1. Getting in trouble for shoveling…that takes the issue to a new, ridiculous level 🙂
      You’re right, diffusion of responsibility also affects people’s willingness to volunteer; everyone thinks that others will do the work.
      I always enjoy your thoughts. Don

  4. There was a man getting beaten on the side of a tall hotel in a foreign country. Though he called out, no one looking out their window did anything. Our DIL shouted to our son who was in the shower. He threw a towel around his middle and ran down twelve flights of stairs to help. When he threw the ground-floor door open the man and the perpetrators were gone.

  5. On the other hand some would jump at the opportunity to “help” when there are (many) others present so that they can be recognized. What would you call that?

    1. Hi Cecil. That probably happens sometimes, but I think the majority of the time few people step up to help. Thanks for responding.

  6. Thank you Don. When one is hurt, we all are hurt. When one is honored we all are honored. Let us all be more aware of similar situations around us where we can give help and assistance.

  7. It appears that there are several explanations as to why a group situation to help someone, differs from an individual situation. I have never been involved in a group situation but my U S Navy training as a Corpsman would have me responding to any situation where a person needed help. It is hard for me to understand that not one person out of 38 didn’t at the least call 911.

    1. Ed, it is surprising that no one tried to help. It happened in 1964 so that was before cell phones and perhaps before 911. Take care, Don.

  8. I have been a lifeguard for years and it is my duty to act. I am not a bystander never was never will be. I have saved animals, humans from drowning heartattach victims. Sun stroke. Broken arms, assaulted children. Etc.

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