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¬gure and the gallery wall is the background. We pay most attention to the ¬gure (so when
you tell a friend about your trip to the museum, you will describe the painting and not
the gallery wall). In general, we are particularly likely to notice a stimulus that is brightly
colored, noisy, or somehow stands out against a background. This is also true when notic-
ing an emergency. Our chances of noticing an emergency increase if it stands out against
the background of everyday life. For example, we are more likely to notice an automobile
accident if there is a loud crash than if there is little or no sound. Anything that makes the
emergency more conspicuous will increase the probability that we will attend to it.
Social Psychology
412


Stage 2: Labeling the Situation as an Emergency
If a person notices the situation, the next step is to correctly label it as one that requires
intervention. One very important factor at this stage is whether there is ambiguity or
uncertainty about what has happened. For example, imagine that you look out the window
of your second-¬‚oor apartment one day and notice immediately below the window a car
with its driverʼs side door open and a person laying half in and half out of the car. Has
the person collapsed, perhaps of a heart attack or a stroke? Or is the person changing
a fuse under the dashboard or ¬xing the radio? If you decide on the latter explanation,
you will turn away and not give it another thought. You have made a “no” decision in
the labeling stage of the model.
Recognizing an emergency situation can be highly ambiguous because there is often
more than one interpretation for a situation. Is the woman upstairs beating her child or
merely disciplining her? Is the man staggering down the street sick or drunk? Is that person
slumped in the doorway injured or a drunken derelict? These questions must be resolved
if we are to correctly label a situation as an emergency requiring our intervention.
When two 10-year-old boys abducted a 2-year-old from a shopping center in
Liverpool, England, in 1993 and subsequently killed him, they walked together for
2 miles along a busy road congested with traf¬c. Thirty-eight people remembered
seeing the three children, and some said later that the toddler was being dragged or
appeared to be crying. Apparently, the situation was ambiguous enough”were they
his older brothers, trying to get him home for dinner?”that no one stopped. A driver
of a dry-cleaning van said he saw one of the older boys aim a kick at the toddler, but it
looked like a “persuading” kind of kick such as one might use on a 2-year-old (Morrison,
1994). The driver failed to label the situation correctly.

The Ambiguity of the Situation
Research con¬rms that situational ambiguity is an important factor in whether people
help. In one study, subjects were seated in a room and asked to ¬ll out a questionnaire
(Yakimovich & Salz, 1971). Outside the room, a confederate of the experimenter was
washing windows. When the experimenter signaled, the confederate knocked over his
ladder and pail, fell to the pavement, and grabbed his ankle. In one condition (the ver-
balization condition), the confederate screamed and cried for help. In the other condition
(the no-verbalization condition), the confederate moaned but didnʼt cry for help.
In both conditions, subjects jumped up and went to the window when they heard
the sound of the crash. Therefore, all subjects noticed the emergency. In the verbal-
ization condition, 81% (13 of 16) tried to help the victim. In the no-verbalization
condition, however, only 29% (5 of 17) tried to help. The clear cry for help, then,
increased the probability that people would help. Without it, it wasnʼt clear that the man
needed help.
Note also that the potential helpers had all seen the victim before his accident. He
was a real person to them. Recall in the Genovese case that the witnesses had not seen
her before she was stabbed. Given this fact and that the murder took place in the fog of
the early morning hours, ambiguity must have existed, at least for some witnesses.

The Presence of Others
The presence of other bystanders also may affect the labeling process. Reactions of
other bystanders often determine the response to the situation. If bystanders show
little concern over the emergency, individuals will be less likely to help. When we
are placed in a social situation (especially an ambiguous one), we look around us to
Chapter 11 Prosocial Behavior and Altruism 413

see what others are doing (the process of social comparison). If others are not con-
cerned, we may not de¬ne the situation as an emergency, and we probably will not
offer to help.
In one study, increasing or decreasing the availability of cues from another bystander
affected helping (Darley, Teger, & Lewis, 1973). Subjects were tested either alone or
in groups of two. Those participating in groups were either facing each other across a
table (face-to-face condition) or seated back-to-back (not-facing condition). An emer-
gency was staged (a fall) while the subjects worked on their tasks. More subjects who
were alone helped (90%) than subjects who were in groups. However, whether subjects
were facing each other made a big difference. Subjects who were facing each other
were signi¬cantly more likely to help (80%) than subjects not facing each other (20%).
Consider what happens when you sit across from someone and you both hear a cry for
help. You look at her, she looks at you. If she then goes back to her work, you probably
will not de¬ne the situation as an emergency. If she says, “Did you hear that?” you are
more likely to go investigate.
Generally, we rely on cues from other bystanders more and more as the ambiguity
of the situation increases. Thus, in highly ambiguous emergency situations, we might
expect the presence of others who are passive to suppress helping. The fact that the wit-
nesses to Genoveseʼs murder were in their separate apartments and did not know what
others were doing and thinking operated to suppress intervention.

Stage 3: Assuming Responsibility to Help: The Bystander Effect
Noticing and correctly labeling a situation as an emergency are not enough to guarantee
that a bystander will intervene. It is certain that the 38 witnesses to Genoveseʼs murder
noticed, to one degree or another, the incident and probably labeled it as an emergency.
What they did not do is conclude that they had a responsibility to help. Darley and Latan©
(1968), puzzled by the lack of intervention on the part of the witnesses, thought that the
presence of others might inhibit rather than increase helping. They designed a simple
yet elegant experiment to test for the effects of multiple bystanders on helping. Their
bystander effect The social
experiment demonstrated the power of the bystander effect, in which a person in need
phenomenon that helping
of help is less likely to receive help as the number of bystanders increases.
behavior is less likely to occur
Subjects in this experiment were told it was a study of interpersonal communica-
as the number of witnesses to
tion. They were asked to participate in a group discussion of their current problems. an emergency increases.
To ensure anonymity, the discussion took place over intercoms. In reality, there was
no group. The experimenter played a tape of a discussion to lead the subject to believe
that other group members existed.
Darley and Latan© (1968) varied the size of the group. In one condition, the subject
was told that there was one other person in the group (so the group consisted of the
subject and the victim); in a second condition, there were two other people (subject,
victim, and four others). The discussion went along uneventfully until it was the vic-
timʼs turn to speak. The actor who played the role of the victim on the tape simulated
a seizure. Darley and Latan© noted the number of subjects who tried to help and how
long it took them to try to help.
The study produced two major ¬ndings. First, the size of the group had an effect on
the percentage of subjects helping. When the subject believed that he or she was alone in
the experiment with the victim, 85% of the subjects helped. The percentage of subjects
offering help declined when the subject believed there was one other bystander (62%)
or four other bystanders (31%). In other words, as the number of bystanders increased,
the likelihood of the subject helping the victim decreased.
Social Psychology
414

The second major ¬nding was that the size of the group had an effect on time
between the onset of the seizure and the offering of help. When the subject believed
he or she was alone, help occurred more quickly than when the subject believed other
bystanders were present. In essence, the subjects who believed they were members of
a larger group became “frozen in time” by the presence of others. They had not decided
to help or not to help. They were distressed but could not act.
Interestingly, the “other bystanders” need not be physically present in order for the
bystander effect to occur. In one experiment conducted by Garcia, Weaver, Moskowitz,
and Darley (2002), participants were asked to imagine that they had won a dinner for
either themselves and 30 friends, 10 friends, or just for themselves (alone condition).
Later participants were asked to indicate how much money they would be willing to
donate to charity after they graduated college. Garcia et al. found that participants indi-
cated the lowest level of donations in the 30 friends condition, and the most in the alone
condition (the 10-friends condition fell between these two groups). This effect extends
to computer chat rooms (Markey, 2000). Markey found that as the number of partici-
pants in a chat room increased, the time it took to receive requested help also increased.
Interestingly, the chat room bystander effect was eliminated when the person making
the request personalized the request by singling someone out by name.

Why Does the Bystander Effect Occur?
The best explanation offered for the bystander effect is diffusion of responsibility
diffusion of responsibility
An explanation suggesting (Darley & Latan©, 1968). According to this explanation, each bystander assumes that
that each bystander assumes another bystander will take action. If all the bystanders think that way, no help will be
another person will take offered. This explanation ¬ts quite well with Darley and Latan©ʼs ¬ndings in which the
responsibility to help.
bystanders could not see each other, as was the case in the Genovese killing. Under
these conditions, it is easy to see how a bystander (unaware of how other bystanders are
acting) might assume that someone else has already taken or will take action.
What about emergency situations in which bystanders can see one another? In
this case, the bystanders could actually see that others were not helping. Diffusion of
responsibility under these conditions may not explain bystander inaction (Latan© &
Darley, 1968). Another explanation has been offered for the bystander effect that centers
on pluralistic ignorance, which occurs when a group of individuals acts in the same
manner despite the fact that each person has different perceptions of an event (Miller
& McFarland, 1987). In the bystander effect, pluralistic ignorance operates when the
bystanders in an ambiguous emergency situation look around and see each other doing
nothing; they assume that the others are thinking that the situation is not an emergency
(Miller & McFarland, 1987). In essence, the collective inaction of the bystanders leads
to a rede¬nition of the situation as a nonemergency.
Latan© and Darley (1968) provided evidence for this explanation. Subjects ¬lled
out a questionnaire alone in a room, with two passive bystanders (confederates of the
experimenter) or with two other actual subjects. While the subjects were ¬lling out the
questionnaire, smoke was introduced into the room through a vent. The results showed
that when subjects were alone in the room, 75% of the subjects reported the smoke,
many within 2 minutes of ¬rst noticing it. In the condition in which the subject was in
the room with two passive bystanders, only 10% reported the smoke. In the last condi-
tion, in which the subject was with two other subjects, 38% reported the smoke. Thus,
the presence of bystanders once again suppressed helping. This occurred despite the
fact that subjects in the bystander conditions denied that the other people in the room
had any effect on them.
Chapter 11 Prosocial Behavior and Altruism 415

In post-experimental interviews, Latan© and Darley (1968) searched for the under-
lying cause for the observed results. They found that subjects who reported the smoke
felt that the smoke was unusual enough to report, although they didnʼt feel that the
smoke was dangerous. Subjects who failed to report the smoke, which was most likely
to occur in the two-bystander condition, developed a set of creative reasons why the
smoke should not be reported. For example, some subjects believed that the smoke was
smog piped into the room to simulate an urban environment, or that the smoke was truth
gas designed to make them answer the questionnaire truthfully. Whatever reasons these
subjects came up with, the situation was rede¬ned as a nonemergency.
Is diffusion of responsibility, dependent on the number of bystanders present,
always the underlying cause for the bystander effect? Although diffusion of responsi-
bility is the most widely accepted explanation, it is not the only explanation. Levine
(1999) suggests that there are situations in which diffusion of responsibility based on
the presence of bystanders cannot explain nonintervention. Instead, Levine suggests
social category
that if a bystander assumes that a social category relationship exists between parties
relationship A relationship
in a potential helping situation, intervention is unlikely. A social category relationship is
in which bystanders assume
one in which bystanders assume that the parties involved belong together in some way.
that the parties involved
For example, a spousal relationship would ¬t this de¬nition because the two individu- belong together in some way.
als are seen as belonging together in the relationship. Levine argues that when we are
confronted with a situation in which a social category relationship exists or is assumed,
a social norm of nonintervention is activated. In short, we are socialized to keep our
noses out of family matters. In fact, there is research that shows that bystanders are
less willing to intervene in an emergency situation when a social category relationship
exists (Shotland & Straw, 1976). Shotland and Straw, for example, found that 65% of
participants were willing to intervene in an argument between a male and female who
were strangers, but only 19% were willing to intervene when the male and female were
said to be married.
Levine (1999) provides further evidence for this effect. He analyzed the trial transcript
of the trial of two 10-year-old boys who murdered a 2-year-old child in London in 1993
(we brie¬‚y described this crime earlier in this chapter). The two older boys, Jon Thompson
and Robert Venables, abducted James Bulger and walked Bulger around London for over
2 hours. During this time, the trio of boys encountered 38 witnesses. Some witnesses
were alone, whereas others were with other bystanders. In a situation reminiscent of the
Kitty Genovese murder, none of the 38 witnesses intervened. Based on his analysis of
the trial transcript, Levine concluded that the nonintervention had little or nothing to do
with the number of bystanders present, or diffusion of responsibility. Instead, statements
of witnesses during trial testimony indicated that the witnesses assumed (or were told by
the older boys) that the older boys were Bulgerʼs brothers taking him home. According
to Levine, the assumption that a social category relationship existed among the boys was
the best explanation for why the 38 witnesses did not intervene.
As a ¬nal note, we need to understand that category relationships can extend
beyond social categories. We may assume that a relationship exists between people and
objects. For example, imagine you are going to your car after work and see another car
parked next to yours. You see that the hood is open and there is someone tinkering with
something under the hood. What would you think is going on? Most likely you would
assume that the person tinkering under the hood owns the car and is ¬xing something.
You would then be surprised to learn the next day that the car was stolen and the man
tinkering under the hood was a thief! Assuming that such relationships exist can be a
powerful suppressant to intervention.
Social Psychology
416


Limits to the Bystander Effect
Increasing the number of bystanders does not always suppress helping; there are excep-
tions to the bystander effect. The bystander effect does not hold when intervention is
required in a potentially dangerous situation (Fischer, Greitemeir, Pollozek, & Frey,
2006). In this experiment participants watched what they believed was a live interaction
between a male and female (actually the participants viewed a prerecorded videotape).
In the high-potential-danger condition, the male was shown to be a large, “thug-like”
individual who made progressively more aggressive sexual advances toward the female,
culminating in sexually aggressive touching of the female and the female crying for
help. At that point the tape went blank. In the low-potential-danger condition, the male
was shown as a thin, short male who engaged in the same sexually aggressive behavior
with the same victim reactions. Half of the participants watched the interaction alone
(no bystander) and the other half watched it in the presence of a confederate of the
experimenter (bystander). The experimenters measured whether the participant tried
to help the female in distress. As shown in Figure 11.4, the bystander effect was repli-
cated in the low-danger situation: Fewer participants attempt to help when a bystander
is present than when the participant is alone. In the high-danger situation, however, the
bystander effect was not evident.
In another experiment, a reversal of the typical bystander effect was shown with
a potentially dangerous helping situation. One group of researchers staged a rape on
a college campus and measured how many subjects intervened (Harari, Harari, &
White, 1985). The subjects had three options in the experimental situation: ¬‚eeing
without helping, giving indirect help (alerting a police of¬cer who is out of view of the
rape), or giving direct help (intervening directly in the rape).
Male subjects were tested as they walked either alone or in groups. (The groups
in this experiment were simply subjects who happened to be walking together and not
interacting with one another.) As the subjects approached a certain point, two actors
staged the rape. The woman screamed, “Help! Help! Please help me! You bastard! Rape!
Rape!” (Harari et al., 1985, p. 656). The results of this experiment did not support the



Bystander Condition
Alone Bystander

60

50
Figure 11.4 Bystanders
Percentage Helping

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