Imagine that you’re walking on the street and see a man viciously beating an older woman.
What would you, just a passerby, do?
That question — about the ethical responsibility to help a stranger in distress and the dynamics that prevent people from acting — has been the focus of research for decades and helps inform some of the debate this past week around two chilling incidents.
In one, a man pummels and chokes a subway passenger in New York into unconsciousness; in the other, an assailant on a busy Midtown street in Manhattan knocks a Filipino immigrant to the ground and then repeatedly kicks her head.
The videos, which were posted, prompted swift condemnation, with many asking why witnesses had seemingly failed to intervene during the acts of violence. For many, the incidents revived a common complaint about the atomized selfishness of big city residents.
“New York has, once again, cemented its long-standing reputation for apathy,” wrote Alex Lo, a columnist for The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. “Given the level of ethnic violence against Asians that has been widely reported in recent months, it’s all the more puzzling why no one saw fit to intervene to help those two victims.”
But those who study what’s known as the bystander effect say the narrative of callous apathy is an outdated trope that dates to a New York Times account of the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese. She was a bar manager stabbed to death outside her building in Queens while three dozen neighbors supposedly ignored her cries for help. Although many key details of the article have since been debunked — the claim that 38 people witnessed the crime, for one, was greatly exaggerated — the account gained international attention and fueled a largely one-side debate about the perils of urban living.
The crime also gave birth to an entire branch of psychology dedicated to understanding the behavioral dynamics of people confronted by public violence. And in the intervening years, researchers have found that popular beliefs about the cold detachment of urban dwellers is largely a canard, one sustained by headline-grabbing media accounts of people who appear to ignore a crime in progress. Such incidents, experts say, are actually quite rare.
In a 2019 study published in the journal American Psychologist, researchers in Britain and the Netherlands reviewed surveillance footage of 200 violent altercations in three countries and found that bystanders had intervened about 90% of the time. In many of the instances, several strangers worked together to calm a fight.
The authors of the study found little variation in the rates of intervention in the three cities — Amsterdam; Cape Town, South Africa; and Lancaster, England — suggesting that the human impulse to help strangers despite risks to one’s own personal safety is universal.
Richard Philpot, lead author of the study, said the uniform rate of interventions was especially surprising given the climate of fear in Cape Town, a city with a comparatively higher rate of violent crime.
“Now that we can examine real-life public conflicts on a large scale, we see that people actually help out a lot,” said Philpot, a social psychologist at Lancaster University. “This is certainly reassuring, to know that others around do not exclusively inhibit helping, but are a resource for good.”
Still, the decision to intervene comes with real risks. Earlier this year, a Chinese immigrant who was reportedly troubled by the spate of attacks on Asian Americans was stabbed to death when he tried to break up a street brawl in Brooklyn. In 2020, a man who intervened in a fight at a Harlem subway station was pushed onto the tracks and killed by a train.
Jackson Katz, co-founder of Mentors in Violence Prevention, an influential program started in 1997 that empowers people to intervene in instances of sexual assault, said fear, not apathy, is the main reason people fail to act when confronted by violence.
“From the outside, it’s easy to look at these people and say, ‘Oh, you’re a coward, you’re apathetic’ or ‘Our culture is so screwed up,’ but the fear of physical retribution can be paralyzing, even if a person is terribly upset by what they are witnessing,” he said. “And it’s a realistic fear, especially in a country where guns are everywhere.”
In a way, that explains some of the tragic testimony heard this past week during the trial for Derek Chauvin, the former police officer charged with killing George Floyd in Minneapolis. Witnesses took the stand to describe their frustration and feelings of helplessness as the officer ignored their pleas while kneeling on Floyd’s neck.
Darnella Frazier, 18, testified that she sometimes lies awake at night, “apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life.”
Fear is not the only factor that determines whether bystanders act in such moments. Bibb Latane, a social psychologist who helped pioneer the field of bystander intervention in the years after the Genovese murder, described another dynamic at play: the diffusion of responsibility that can lead to inaction among strangers who witness a crime.
Latane, along with social psychologist John Darley, sought to replicate real-life emergencies through a series of lab experiments with people who did not know one another. The greater the number of onlookers, they found, the less likely people were to intervene. They also determined that strangers unconsciously took their cues from those around them, a concept known as social influence, and were less likely to intervene when others were similarly passive.
In an interview, Latane said the theories that he and Darley had developed nearly five decades ago were frequently overlooked by those who cling to popular notions of the emotionally detached bystander. He said those sentiments were often fanned by the news media, which tends to publicize incidents in which witnesses failed to act while ignoring instances when onlookers intervened.
“It's the unusual event that makes it newsworthy,” he said. “It was never about apathy, it’s about social inhibition, and I’ve always thought it was unfair that New York was condemned for what happened to Genovese.”
More-recent research that examines real-life interactions has called into question some of their earlier findings. The 2019 study by Philpot, for one, found that a greater number of bystanders increased the prospects for intervention. In reviewing the surveillance footage, the researchers found that on average at least three people chose to act, and they determined that the presence of each additional bystander led to a 10% increase in the odds that a victim would receive help.
Although Philpot said his research was not aimed at testing the bystander-effect theory, the findings suggest that there is safety in numbers.
“While the presence of more bystanders may reduce the likelihood that each single individual intervenes, it also provides a wider pool of potential help givers, thus boosting the overall likelihood that the victim receives help from at least someone,” he said.
Alan Berkowitz, an expert on the bystander effect and author of “Response-Ability: A Complete Guide to Bystander Intervention,” said other factors, including the race of the perpetrator or victim, could play an unconscious role in determining whether people help a stranger in need.
“Research suggests that bystanders who, for instance, are white might not feel it’s worth their while getting involved in an incident involving two people of color, but they might feel more comfortable intervening in a fight between two white male executives,” said Berkowitz, a psychologist who runs workshops for college students, community groups and members of the military about ways to effectively intervene to prevent acts of violence and sexual assault. “Once you train yourself to become aware of these things, and you are trained to do interventions that are safe and effective, you become more comfortable acting on your desire to help.”
Some of those tactics include distracting the perpetrator, calling for help or finding a way to enlist other bystanders to intervene more collaboratively.
“Talking to other bystanders is really important, because often we don’t know that others are also concerned,” he said.
But as in the Genovese case, the initial accounts of a crime — and the responses of bystanders — are often incomplete. And video footage, it turns out, may not always tell the full story. In the case of the recent beating on the subway, the victim, the police later said, was Hispanic, not Asian, and they said he might have instigated the violence with a racial slur. Experts say that filming an attack is also an act of courage that can deter the assailant from inflicting even more grievous harm. It can also serve as an invaluable tool for bringing an assailant to justice.
In the case of the attack on the woman outside the apartment building in Manhattan, the victim’s daughter said someone had tried to help: A passerby yelled at the perpetrator in an attempt to distract him. There were no calls to 911, but the union representing the doormen who were seen watching the attack from inside a lobby — and who then closed the front door once the assailant fled — defended the men, saying the brief clip from the surveillance footage did not show what had come afterward. The men, the union said, went outside to help the woman and flagged down a passing police car.