The “bystander effect” is one of those things that, when I read about it, I instantly sensed it was garbage theory, and it turns out it was. My bullshit detector does not trigger often, but when it does, it is accurate even when I cannot be logically sure. I’m more comfortable with evidence and logic, so I decided to examine the available information before jumping to conclusions.
The formulation of the bystander effect is problematic even at first glance.
The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to help a victim when other people are present. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help.
The first part seems entirely sensible and natural. The second part seems unlikely and unproven. Overall, it just doesn’t stand up to common sense.
If there’s a group of people near a victim in danger, are they all going to call an ambulance? Can two people perform CPR at the same time? Only a finite amount of help is practical or needed, so it’s baffling to frame the decrease in likelihood of each individual to help as anything surprising. What “effect” is there?
The definition of the bystander effect I’ve chosen is somewhat sensationalist and misleading. Firstly, the experiments that researchers performed contradicts the second claim. If 70% of people offer help as the sole bystander, but only 40% of people offer when there are other bystanders, then the theoretical probability of receiving any help increases as there are more people. You might attribute an unfortunate incident to the bystander effect, but I hope no one actually believes the second sentence of that definition to be a defensible statement.
The first part of the definition is also problematic. If I said “People are less likely to donate to charity when swimming,” is that accurate? It’s probably true, but it’s misleading to suggest that people don’t donate to charity because they’re swimming. All you could say is that people don’t donate to charity when they’re physically unable to in the moment. Likewise, is the fact that other people are present the primary reason why in some situations, bystanders are less likely to help? Is the same person less willing to offer help simply because there are more people? Basically, no. There are many factors, some of which are related to there being more people, but social group membership/identity is one of the key factors that can affect whether the effect is observed or if the opposite is observed.
In short, there’s not much evidence supporting the common definition of the bystander effect. That said, the first researchers Latané and Darley were not trying to prove something quite so obviously flawed; and they went on to theorize about other characteristics of bystander interaction/non-interaction. However, their interest was driven by the topic of the murder of Kitty Genovese, and some degree of fault lies with them for the fact that they, and subsequently most psychology textbooks thereafter, have grossly misrepresented the facts of the case.
There weren’t 38 witnesses, more like several at most. The relevant witnesses could not have watched for long, and they did call for help. And Kitty was still alive when police arrived. The bystander effect is founded on one giant myth. It’s not false just because it was based on a multitude of lies, but it also happens to be false.