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Unresponsive Bystanders
Status: News story
Local 6 News in Orlando recently conducted a test to see how quickly people would respond to a crime. They arranged for an undercover police officer to pretend to be a burglar trying to break into cars and homes in plain view of bystanders. The results:

most bystanders ignored or just watched the crime -- and some even helped the thieves...
people were ready to help the mystery man break into a car.
A third test had the fake burglar enter a home through a window and then go out the front door. During the staged crime, some golfers gave a friendly wave and a technician ignored the incident.

These results aren't surprising. Psychologists have long been aware of the "unresponsive bystander" effect. Witnesses to medical emergencies or crimes often do nothing, either because they assume someone else will do something, or because they fail to correctly interpret the situation.

In Elephants on Acid I describe an experiment that was conducted at Columbia University in 1968. Subjects were led to believe they were participating in a group discussion over an intercom system, with each participant sitting in a separate cubicle. Suddenly they heard one of the other participants having an epileptic seizure. The seizure was fake, but the subjects couldn't know that, and most of them did nothing to help, because they assumed someone else would help.

Categories: Law/Police/Crime, Psychology
Posted by Alex on Tue Feb 26, 2008
Comments (13)
More from the Hoax Museum Archives:
A long time ago (late 60's?), a young woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered in full sight of dozens of people sitting in their apartments in a NYC building. Not one of them intervened or even called the police. When asked, many of them said they assumed someone else would do it.

At the time, this passivity horrified the public. I wonder if it would have the same effect on people today.
Posted by Cranky Media Guy  on  Tue Feb 26, 2008  at  01:06 AM
The notion of 'correctly interpreting' a staged situation can be epistemologically interesting, mind: if I interpret the 'breaking into a car' act as 'owner has lost the key' and decide to help, I can certainly be accused of poor judgment for not considering the alternative(s), but is someone interpreting it as 'attempted car thief' any more 'correct', thanks to an alignment with the experimenters' expected interpretation? After all, we're both forming false beliefs (given that the act is staged).
Posted by Robert Seddon  on  Tue Feb 26, 2008  at  04:46 AM
Cranky, you might be interested in this American Heritage article on the murder of Kitty Genovese. Apparently the bulk of the 'facts' about her murder turned out to be incorrect.
Posted by Charybdis  on  Tue Feb 26, 2008  at  09:51 AM
Robert brings up a good point. Perhaps the bystanders "correctly" interpreted the scene as staged and that's why they did nothing. Or perhaps they perceived a danger to themselves if they got involved.

It's also possible they've had a previous experience with unresponsive law enforcenment agencies. Who doesn't have a story about that. I once spotted a man obviously breaking into cars in the very early morning hours from my 2nd floor apartment window. I called 911 and they kept trying to convince me he really wasn't breaking into cars. There's never an assault rifle around when you need one.
Posted by Captain Al  on  Tue Feb 26, 2008  at  12:59 PM
Yeah, Captain Al, but shooting the police can get you in big trouble.

Around here, members of the local gendarmarie get sarcastic when I even suggest they might want to do something about, for example, a rash of burglaries or robberies. Then they agitate for pay raises, pointing out how we have one of the highest crime rates in the country.
Posted by Big Gary  on  Tue Feb 26, 2008  at  05:29 PM
I don't think a perceived danger to one's self is any cause to be a wuss. See a girl getting attacked or slapped about you get your arse over there and do something. Even if it costs you teeth, or worse. I'd rather get a knife in the gut than live the rest of my life knwoing I stood by and did nothing while some poor bugger got raped or murdered or assaulted.

Try one of those experiments in some parts of Glasgow. If someone spots one of their cars being broken into they'll be all over the researcher, like a violent moss.
Posted by Renquist  on  Tue Feb 26, 2008  at  08:24 PM
Very interesting, Chary. I certainly always heard the version of the story as the New York Times reported it back in the 60's. Thanks for linking to the correction. Very interesting, indeed.
Posted by Cranky Media Guy  on  Wed Feb 27, 2008  at  02:32 AM
No surprise here. When the police tell you not to "get involved", fight back, or do anything when a crook confronts you, AND the fact that so many people get sued for helping, but not helping "just right", why would anyone try an stop the crook?

Many honest people think others are honest. I'd help a guy break into his car if I thought he was sincere. But more than likely, I'd offer to call a locksmith for him or a tow truck since I know nothing about breaking into a car other than the "brick" method.
Posted by Dan Sz.  on  Wed Feb 27, 2008  at  05:47 AM
Renquist, old saying: Until his death, no man is sure of his courage. I have no family to support, nor anyone dependant upon my existence, but I think I might hesitate and reconsider if I was in such a situation, but then again, based upon past experience, I might charge right in. Each situation is different.
Posted by Christopher Cole  on  Wed Feb 27, 2008  at  09:56 AM
I think i saw a commercial for a new reality show thats going to be starting that deals with this very subject.
Posted by Tim  on  Wed Feb 27, 2008  at  11:07 AM
Many people don't help for fear of the consiquences. Someone I know told of when he stopped to help an old man..
The man was at a bus stop, and fell, hitting his head. There was a fair amount of blood. The guy I know stopped to help, and picked the guy up. When the old guy came back to being conscious, he started screaming at my pal and accused him of attacking him! Two young guys heard all this and were about to come intervine and grab my pal, until my pal explained.. so they held the old guy back while an ambulance was called. (the old guy hit my pal and landed a few good blows in actually).
So there's a risk when you're trying to help someone that they could then blame you..
Posted by sarahearth  on  Wed Feb 27, 2008  at  08:31 PM
One of those shows like Dateline is doing a series on this. One situation was a guy refusing service to a woman b/c she was wearing a scarf, as if she were muslim. Another was girls calling other girls names, they re-did that one with the girls getting physical. And then there was one where someone backed into a car & left the scene.

It was interesting. Some people agreed with the guy refusing service to a muslim, or just plain ignored the situation. Some people did stand up for her - which I thought was nice.

In the one with the girls, more women got involved than men...until the girls got physical, THEN the men stepped in to stop them. The girls were teens, and the scenario happened in a family type park where the passers-by were parents themselves. Most of the people they showed had kids with them. The girls (all actors) were told to keep their language clean - which they did - but a lot of the people confronting them did NOT. I thought that was crummy. So, when you see a kid bullying another, you should call them names & be profane with them?

The car one was a little stupid. They had a woman back into a jag...and then later they switched it & had a guy back into it. I don't remember if they gave results on if people intervened more when it was a male vs. female driver.

I have called 911 from my cell phone more than once when I have seen something happening while I'm driving. (Car accidents type stuff mostly.) Once I saw a guy trying to push a girl into traffic. I was afraid to stop b/c it was a busy street & I couldn't really pull over b/c of a sidewalk. Another time I told a manager that a woman was abusing a child in a walmart. She was hitting him with her cart repeatedly. And screaming at him & calling him names. I stayed long enough to see the manager going over to the woman with a very large male employee (protection maybe?)...It's hard to know when to help sometimes...but to me, if violence looks imminent or there is a child involved, I will at least notify someone who may be able to do something. (Typically being with 2 children in public myself - I would not want them in harms way while I helped someone else.)
Posted by Maegan  on  Thu Feb 28, 2008  at  09:59 AM
I was walking at night once and saw two guys pretty clearly breaking into a car. I stopped in shock and then they saw me and stood up and just stared at me. I turned around and just walked away. I didn't call the police because I didn't want to cause any trouble with the two thieves. When I was around the corner I just ran home, and by that time it would have been too late to call the police. It's not that I didn't care about that guys car, but I care a lot more about protecting myself than someone's car.
Posted by Razela  on  Sat Mar 01, 2008  at  11:59 AM
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